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U.S. ‘Underestimated’ the Importance of Russia and Cuba to Maduro

Nick Wadhams

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. has underestimated Russia and Cuba’s ability to prop up the Venezuelan regime, envoy Elliott Abrams told reporters, acknowledging frustration that President Nicolas Maduro has clung to power despite a pressure campaign to oust him.

Russian companies now handle more than 70% of Venezuela’s oil, including in ship-to-ship transfers, and the beleaguered nation’s economy has become more dependent on Moscow generally, Abrams said at a briefing on Monday.

The briefing was held as another political crisis unfolded in Venezuela, with opposition leader Juan Guaido and a Maduro-backed rival both announcing plans to open a session of the National Assembly after security forces had barred Guaido from the building.

U.S. officials have previously criticized Russia and what Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has dubbed Venezuela’s “Cuban Communist overlords” for their support of Maduro, who has remained in office despite harsh sanctions and as the oil-rich nation has descended into chaotic destitution and millions of Venezuelans have fled in desperation.

“We underestimated the importance of the Cuban and Russian support for the regime, which has proved I think to be the two most important pillars of support for the regime and without which it wouldn’t be there, it wouldn’t be in power,” Abrams said.

He had organized the briefing to underscore U.S. support for Guaido after Maduro’s security forces prevented his re-election as leader. Instead, Luis Parra, a former opposition legislator now allied with Maduro, took over Guaido’s Assembly office.

That move earned the scorn of most of Latin America including the leftist governments of Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay. Guaido won re-election in an off-site vote, garnering felicitations from the U.S. and other allies who have said that he is the country’s rightful leader.

Vice President Mike Pence congratulated Guaido in a telephone call on Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter. Pence reaffirmed that Guaido is the legitimate president, the person said.

“Obviously, if the regime had had the votes, it would not have ordered soldiers to keep elected deputies out of the National Assembly,” Abrams said. “This is a struggle against a regime that as we saw yesterday will do anything to prevent the return of democracy.”

Abrams said the U.S. was weighing new ways to support Guaido and was also considering new sanctions against the Maduro government.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nick Wadhams in Washington at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, John Harney, Robert Jameson

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