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Venezuelan Chaos Is Allowing Guerilla Groups To 'Operate Freely,' Says US Military

Daniel Rivero
US Navy Admiral Craig Faller, pictured here with City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Not a day goes by without new news emerging from Venezuela about the ongoing political-humanitarian crisis. Just this week, a Russian plane landed in the South American country carrying troops and an unknown load of military cargo. On Tuesday, a caravan carrying U.S.-recognized interim President Juan Guaidó was attacked by alleged government supporters, prompting a rebuke from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called the incident an act of “intimidation by [President] Nicolas Maduro’s lawless, armed gangs, known as colectivos.”

Also on Monday, there were reports that another massive blackout had rocked the nation, the second in a month.

The United States Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, the Doral-based branch of the U.S. military that covers operations in South America and the Caribbean, has been playing a key role in the Trump administration's response to the Venezuelan crisis. SOUTHCOM has been regularly shipping humanitarian aid into Cucuta, a Colombian border town.

WLRN briefly spoke with U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the head commander of SOUTHCOM, during an event for Navy Week, which is currently being held in Miami for the first time.

The conversation touched mostly on the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela, which currently has two parallel governments -- one recognized by more than 50 nations including the U.S., and another recognized by much of the rest of the world, including allies Russia, China and Turkey. All of this is happening while the Trump Administration continues to state that “all options are on the table” for responding to Venezuela, suggesting a military invasion could be possible.

If an invasion were to happen, it would be under Admiral Faller’s direct command.

Here are some highlights of the conversation: 

WLRN: By now we have a good sense of what people in the White House and the State Department say about the situation in Venezuela. How much autonomy do you have in this situation to make decisions for the people under your direct command?

FALLER: We see solidarity around the world with the crisis in Venezuela, as the world unites for a diplomatic transfer to the legitimate interim government of [Juan] Guaidó. As United States Southern Command, our responsibility is to conduct and to work the military-military relations with Latin American and Caribbean. And so I'm in support of policy and in support of the Secretary of Defense and orders that I receive.

So we're right now focused on humanitarian assistance [with the] Department of State and USAID and doing prudent planning. That's what our mission and our focus are.

Considering what you know right now about the Venezuelan military, what has to be done in your opinion to get more of the command to switch sides and flip? Is it just going to take the regime going bankrupt at this point?

Well, the illegitimate, illicit dictatorship of Maduro, I would say they're already bankrupt and they're staying in power because of the Cuban and Russian support that surrounds them and that they rely on. [You] can't forget for a minute the complicity of the Cubans and Russians in this misery. They truly are complicit, and there's an invasion that's happened. That invasion of Venezuela's been by Cubans and Russians.

So -- maintain the international unity, maintaining patience and looking forward [for] this diplomatic process [to] work. The Venezuelan people deserve it.

There have been widespread reports that non-state actors like ELN -- the National Liberation Army -- have crossed the border from Colombia and they're operating openly and freely in Venezuela. How could the presence of non-state actors like that complicate the situation in a post-Maduro Venezuela?

Colombia, as a close partner, their military is a top-notch organization. They're well-trained and they have particularly good special operation forces. They're focused very keenly on the threat of terrorism from ELN and FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] dissidents.

The Venezuelan crisis has allowed for FARC dissidents and ELN to operate freely in what I really would call a lawless region, which is the border region inside Venezuela. And it's another indication of Maduro and the fact he only cares for himself and his crony stooges that make up his inner circle.

If the United States can't -- or decides not to -- invade Venezuela, what more could the U.S. military be doing to aid Venezuelan refugees in Colombia in addition to flying aid into Cucuta?

I think our President and Secretary of State have been very clear on the importance and the support of the shift to the legitimate interim government of Guaidó. And the United States military, United States Southern Command -- we remain on the balls of our feet in full support of our political leadership and their mission. The United States military, we are working daily with our key partners Colombia, Brazil and other partners -- democracies in the region -- to share information, to share an assessment of the situation and to be ready. I like to tell my team we are judged to be on the balls of our feet and be ready.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion.