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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


COVID-19

  • The European Commission released some pretty dismal forecasts for Eurozone economies yesterday, predicting a 7.4% overall economic decline in 2020. Greece is projected to fare the worst (per usual), with a 9.7% projected decline, and Spain and Italy are expected to contract 9%—largely because they were the most affected by COVID-19.

  • That’s a stark contrast to China’s latest good economic news: despite economists’ consensus that Chinese exports would fall 15.7% in April 2020 vs. April 2019, they actually rose 3.5%. (Chinese imports, however, fell 14.2% year over year, which was worse than the 11.2% economists expected.) Western analysts say the unexpected rise in exports probably shows China is just clearing a backlog that mounted as coronavirus stifled exports, although China says it recently started exporting more to Belt and Road countries.

  • We’ll see a good indicator of the effect of COVID-19 on the U.S. economy tomorrow when the monthly U.S. jobs report comes out. Analysts say it could show unemployment of up to 16%. That’s not as high as the doomsdayers expected at the beginning of this pandemic, but it’s still believed to be the highest since the Great Depression (or at least since they started rigorously measuring unemployment in 1948).

China

  • See below for an Economist op-ed on “the new scold war” between the U.S. and China over COVID-19 blame.

Venezuela

  • The U.S. is investigating former Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who claimed to have led Sunday’s alleged coup on Venezuela from Florida, for arms trafficking—based on statements Goudreau himself tweeted. Venezuela is trying to extradite Goudreau for trial there.

  • Meanwhile, state TV appeared to show one of the two Americans allegedly involved in the ground operation confessing to the invasion and to trying to arrest Pres. Maduro (the U.S. is trying to secure the return of both accused Americans in Venezuelan custody, but Maduro says they’ll be tried in Venezuela, “respecting all of their rights”).

  • A Washington Post article pasted below has a well-investigated account of the full bizarre story.

Iran

  • As expected, Pres. Trump vetoed the Iran War Powers Resolution, which would have restrained his ability to use military force against Iran without Congress’s (probably non-forthcoming) approval.

Afghanistan

  • Iran continues to deny that its border guards tortured and drowned dozens of Afghan workers trying to migrate into (or back to) Iran, but Afghanistan and other countries seem to believe the charges.

  • Former First VP Dostum is reportedly slated to get a “Marshal” rank in the political agreement Pres. Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are mulling. We should hear more details about the deal in the next few days.

Iraq

  • The Iraqi Parliament picked an American-backed former intelligence chief, Mustafa al Kadhimi, as the country’s new PM. It’s the first time in five months that Iraq has had a real government.

Pentagon

  • A new report found that the U.S. Military killed 132 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Syria in 2019. That’s significantly lower than other estimates: for example, independent watchdog Airwars estimates that 416 to 1,030 civilians were killed in just the first half of 2019, and in Iraq and Syria alone.

Guyana

  • Guyana started recounting votes from its March 2nd election, and is streaming the process online to avoid accusations of tampering that marred the initial count.

Other News

  • There was an explosion at a chemical plant in Andhra Pradesh, southern India, and it leaked Styrene gas into the air. Around 1,000 people were directly exposed to the leak, and at least 11 died from its effects.

From a Miami condo to the Venezuelan coast, how a plan to ‘capture’ Maduro went rogue (WaPo)

Inside a glittering Miami high-rise, representatives of the Venezuelan opposition sat in a room adorned with samurai swords and listened to a pitch. They had been appointed by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to explore all options in their U.S.-backed quest to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. On that afternoon on the shores of Biscayne Bay last September, a former U.S. Army Green Beret presented them with an answer.

Operation Resolution.

Jordan Goudreau, a 43-year-old Special Forces veteran who ran a strategic-security firm on the Florida Space Coast, laid out a plan that could double as a screenplay for an episode of “Jack Ryan.” Goudreau claimed to have 800 men ready to penetrate Venezuela and “extract” Maduro and his henchmen, according to J.J. Rendón, the Venezuelan political strategist tapped by Guaidó to help lead the secretive committee.

Guaidó “was saying all options were on the table, and under the table,” Rendón told The Washington Post. “We were fulfilling that purpose.”

By October, the plan had advanced to the point of a signed agreement, contingent on funding and other conditions. Rendón calls it a trial balloon, a test of what Goudreau could do that was never officially greenlighted. But the language of the agreement left no ambiguity on the objective: “An operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro . . . remove the current Regime and install the recognized Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.”

[Read the general services agreement between the Venezuelan opposition and Silvercorp]

But soon after the signing, Rendón said, Goudreau began acting erratically. He failed to produce evidence of the financial backing he claimed to have lined up to fund the operation, Rendón said, and demanded immediate payment of a $1.5 million retainer. There was no evidence of 800 men. Rendón transferred him $50,000 for “expenses” to buy more time, but the relationship between the two men quickly went south.

“Washington is fully aware of your direct participation in the project and I don’t want them to lose faith,” Goudreau warned in an Oct. 10 text message to Rendón.

There was an explosive argument in Rendón’s Miami condominium in early November, Rendón said. He and other opposition officials considered the operation dead.

[General services agreement attachments: ‘An operation to capture/detain/remove Nicolás Maduro’]

Until Sunday morning.

First, Venezuelan officials said they had thwarted a predawn “invasion” aimed at killing Maduro. Then Goudreau appeared in a video with a former Venezuelan military officer in battle fatigues. The men proclaimed the start of an operation to “liberate” Venezuela, and Goudreau said participants had entered the country. But by then the mission — apparently infiltrated by Maduro’s agents — had already sustained a devastating blow, with eight men killed and two captured. On Monday, 11 others were detained, two of them Goudreau’s fellow former Green Berets.

This report, based on interviews with more than 20 people familiar with the events, provides previously undisclosed details on the opposition’s discussions of what participants secretly dubbed “Plan C”: an armed incursion to locate and capture Maduro.

President Trump and other U.S. officials have denied knowledge of the ill-fated operation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that “there was no United States government direct involvement.”

Goudreau says he unsuccessfully sought U.S. backing through an aide in the office of Vice President Pence. He declined to name the aide. A spokeswoman for Pence said Wednesday that there was “zero contact” between anyone in the vice president’s office and Goudreau.

“There was no coordination, nothing to do with this,” spokeswoman Katie Miller said.

Rendón said his committee kept details of its work to a small group and never shared them with U.S. officials, because the plan was only being “studied.”

Goudreau insists that some form of the operation is “ongoing” and that Venezuela’s mainstream opposition betrayed him by reneging on their deal. He said he opted to move forward with what he says he was hired to do. He said it had nothing to do with money; he was doing “the right thing.”

U.S. denies involvement in alleged Venezuela invasion attempt as details remain murky

“This isn’t a wartime action; this is a policing action,” Goudreau said. “The world recognizes one guy [Guaidó] as president, so they hired me to arrest the other person who has usurped power, Nicolás Maduro.”

Goudreau, a Canadian-born American citizen, first walked through the looking glass of the anti-Maduro world in February 2019, when he worked security at a Venezuelan aid concert on the Colombian border organized by British billionaire Richard Branson.

He served 15 years in the Army as an infantry mortar man and later as a Special Forces medical sergeant. He deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan twice each between 2006 and 2014, Army officials said.

“He had an intensity to him that was a little bit different,” said Joe Kent, a retired Green Beret who attended a leader’s course with him in 2007. “He seemed like he was training for something.”

In 2012, the Defense Department launched a criminal investigation into Goudreau for alleged theft and fraud in connection with $62,000 in housing allowances he collected for his wife, court records show. Goudreau said the matter was resolved without any charges.

He founded Silvercorp USA in 2018. The firm advertises a variety of services, including assisting victims of kidnapping and extortion. According to a biography on the company’s website, Goudreau planned and led “international security teams for the President of the United States as well as the Secretary of Defense.”

By last summer, Venezuela’s faltering opposition was looking for options. Guaidó had tried to lead a military uprising against Maduro on April 30, 2019, but the carefully constructed plot utterly collapsed as conspirators close to the autocrat either backed out or had been double agents the whole time. That left Guaidó, the National Assembly president who is recognized by the United States and more than 50 other nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader, fighting to regain momentum for his opposition movement.

One little-known element of that fight was the creation last August of a new “Strategic Committee.” Its full membership remains secret, but its most public face is Juan José Rendón.

The 56-year-old political strategist was perfectly suited to the task. Chased out of Venezuela by the ruling socialists in 2013 and threatened with torture should he return, he was no friend of Maduro. From his base in the intrigue-heavy world of Venezuelan exiles in Miami, he became an internationally sought political consultant.

His committee’s mission was to investigate scenarios for achieving regime change. Members researched pedestrian options, such as ratcheting up international pressure against the government.

But they also studied the possibility of effectively kidnapping Maduro and his close associates.

The effort involved speaking to more than a dozen attorneys about the legalities of such a mission, Rendón said. They looked at the “universal enemy” argument — once used to prosecute pirates — that formed the basis of some Nazi renditions after World War II. They compiled a dossier on the failed Bay of Pigs attempt to liberate Cuba from the government of Fidel Castro.

Questions of legality dogged the prospects of such an operation in Venezuela. But committee members ultimately decided that articles of the Venezuelan constitution, coupled with the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, might offer the legal cover they needed to potentially move forward.

By the time Goudreau arrived in Rendón’s living room on Sept. 7, Rendón said, the committee had already met with a handful of potential partners. But they wanted as much as $500 million for the job.

Goudreau, in contrast, pitched a self-financed plan with a retainer upfront and a more modest payout — $212.9 million — after the mission was accomplished. The money was to come from future exports of Venezuelan oil under a Guaidó government.

But they had an ace in the hole that might not cost Venezuelan taxpayers a dime.

The opposition had identified private warehouses in Venezuela filled with the allegedly ill-gotten gains of Maduro’s inner circle. Photographs shared via text message between Rendón and Goudreau and provided to The Post show massive bales of carefully wrapped U.S. dollars stacked on a wooden floor. Goudreau would have been entitled to 14 percent of the recovered funds.

U.S. indicts Venezuela’s Maduro on narcoterrorism charges, offers $15 million reward for his capture

The plan involved far more than the primary targets of seizing and extracting Maduro and his men. A general services agreement indicated that Silvercorp would advise ex-Venezuelan soldiers in exile for the operation. Goudreau had 45 days for force preparation, equipment procurement and mission readiness. Teams would enter Venezuela clandestinely and form cells that would move deeper into the nation to secure key oil facilities and strategic buildings. They would engage government security forces, as well as the motorcycle-riding, pro-Maduro gangs known as colectivos and Colombian guerrilla groups operating on Venezuelan soil.

An agreement was signed in Washington on Oct. 16. Goudreau secretly recorded a brief video call that day with Guaidó, which he provided to The Post.

“We are doing the right thing for our country,” Guaidó is heard to say, and later: “I’m about to sign.”

Guaidó declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he denied any existing contract with Goudreau, and said his “interim government” has no connection to the apparently ongoing operation against Maduro.

For a time, Rendón and others thought Goudreau might produce results. But they grew wary after he began demanding payment of the $1.5 million retainer. Rendón describes the payment as a mere gesture, not to be collected upfront, to help Goudreau raise $50 million in private funds.

Goudreau counters that the agreement — supplied in part to The Post by Goudreau, with a more complete version provided by Rendón — bound the opposition to his services and initial fee. A seven-page document provided by Goudreau carries Guaido’s signature, along with those of Rendón and fellow opposition official Sergio Vergara.

“Look, J.J. Rendón pushed for the $50 million for the operation, an operation to flip the country,” Goudreau said. “Nobody here is a Boy Scout. They thought they were going to seize power.”

Inside the secret plot to turn senior Venezuelan officials against Maduro

Rendón, however, insists that the document Goudreau produced was never signed by Guaidó, and provided previous and subsequent agreements to The Post that did not bear Guaido’s name. Rendón said Guaidó knew only the rough outlines of an “exploratory plan” but grew suspicious of Goudreau based on the reports of the committee.

“We were all having red flags, and the president was not comfortable with this,” he said.

Some have feared that Maduro will use Goudreau’s operation to take an action he has so far resisted: arresting Guaidó. On Wednesday, he called for an investigation into Guaido’s alleged involvement.

Days before the incursion into Venezuela, Goudreau’s attorneys delivered a letter to Rendón demanding payment of $1.45 million. Opposition officials began to fear Goudreau might take last year’s discussions public.

When Rendón woke up Sunday to news of the operation, he said, he was stunned.

“I thought, are these guys crazy?” he said. “They were blackmailing us [for the money]. I thought, wow, are you really going to take it this deep?”

After providing security at the 2019 border concert, Goudreau came into contact with Clíver Alcalá. The former Venezuelan major general had been close to the late socialist leader Hugo Chávez but defected under his successor, Maduro. Alcalá was living in Colombia, organizing former Venezuelan soldiers in a plan to oust Maduro.

The meeting took place in a hotel in Bogotá. There, several people familiar with the events say, Goudreau learned the details of Alcalá’s plan. At one point, people familiar with the events say, the plan was to rush to seize the Venezuelan oil capital of Maracaibo, then push east toward Caracas.

Some senior opposition officials had dismissed the plan as a “fantasy.” When Goudreau got involved, the plan became an operation to extract Maduro, his wife and other government officials, including close Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello.

Oil-rich Venezuela is running out of gas, and Maduro is running out of options

But that plan appeared to be compromised.

In March, U.S. authorities indicted Maduro and other current and former senior Venezuelan figures on narcoterrorism charges. Defendants included Alcalá, who was brought to the United States. Then Maduro’s government went public with charges it had been lobbing for months — that a plot against him was brewing on Colombian soil.

Maduro has claimed his agents knew every detail of Sunday’s incursion and were lying in wait.

“We knew everything,” he said. “What they ate, what they didn’t eat. What they drank. Who financed them.”

Venezuelan government says it stopped ‘invasion’ launched from Colombia

Goudreau briefly came into contact last year with former longtime Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, now a security consultant. The two men attended a meeting in Florida last spring with businessmen at which Goudreau met influential figures in the Venezuelan opposition, according to a person close to Schiller. That meeting was unrelated to the opposition’s strategic committee. Schiller, determining there were no real business prospects, subsequently cut off contact with both the opposition and Goudreau.

U.S. officials were aware, and concerned, about the hundreds of Venezuelan soldiers who had defected and were living precariously in Colombia. U.S. and Colombian officials shared concern that if they were destitute, they could be drawn into illicit activity. Discussions were held about how and whether to feed those men, or organize them to aid the Venezuelan refugee community.

But they viewed the idea that they could be organized into a fighting force as “completely insane,” one official said.

The Colombians “were against it and we were against it,” according to a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “No one should be doing this kind of military organizing.”

Maduro said Wednesday that four additional “terrorists” had been arrested. He showed a video of the questioning of a man identified as Luke Denman, one of two former Green Berets who had served with Goudreau and was now captured.

Denman, who appeared disheveled but calm and unharmed, spoke in response to questions from an unseen interrogator. He confirmed that the goal of the mission had been to capture Maduro, and that he had expected $50,000 to $100,000 for training in Colombia.

He said training and organization of the operation had taken place near the Colombian town of Riohacha, near the Venezuelan border. Only two Americans were in the training camp, he said, including himself.

Weapons and uniforms, he said, had been provided by “Jordan, through Silvercorp.”

They were picked up at airport and driven by a woman called “Alex.” He described a “man in a wheelchair” who showed up at one of two safe houses in Riohacha, who “appeared to have some influence.” He “arrived in a nice SUV, had on a nice shirt, he had gold jewelry on.”

“I was helping Venezuelans take back control of their country,” Denman said.

America v China: A relationship long burdened by rivalry and suspicion has fallen into outright hostility (Economist)

You might have hoped that a pandemic would bring the world together. Instead covid-19 is tearing it apart. As the disease has spread, relations between America and China have plunged into an abyss from which they will struggle to escape.

Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, says he has “enormous evidence” that the virus behind covid-19 came from a laboratory in Wuhan—though America’s intelligence agencies as well as its closest intelligence partners say proof is still lacking. To punish China for letting the disease spread, the Trump administration has reportedly considered demanding reparations or cancelling some Treasury bonds held by China—though nervous American officials later dismissed this crackpot idea. China has branded Mr Pompeo “insane” and a “political virus” (see article). State-run media are calling for an international investigation into America’s “incredible failure” to deal with the outbreak.

This sniping deepens a bitter rivalry. The dominant view in the United States is that China is fundamentally hostile, a strategic rival that steals American intellectual property and destroys American jobs in the race to get ahead. China, meanwhile, sees America as a decadent and declining power that has resorted to bullying to keep China down because it can no longer compete fairly.

Domestic politics in both countries is likely to intensify the animosity. Now that covid-19 has undone the economic gains that occurred on his watch, President Donald Trump is making confrontation with China central to his re-election strategy including, he hopes, as a way to browbeat his opponent, Joe Biden.

China denies any blame for the pandemic, instead hailing the party’s disease management. At home, propaganda outlets hint that the virus came from America—and are widely believed. Yet America’s complaint that China’s first instinct was to cover up covid-19 is true. Other countries, including Australia, have called for an investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Reuters news agency this week reported on an internal paper prepared for China’s leaders, warning that feelings around the world against their country, led by America, are more intense than at any time since the killings around Tiananmen Square in 1989. China will slap down foreign critics more vigorously than ever.

Tension between two such splenetic powers has consequences. One is the risk of military action. China has occupied and fortified disputed shoals and reefs in the South China Sea in defiance of international law. It has recently sunk a Vietnamese vessel there. America, meanwhile, has been vigorously asserting the principle of freedom of navigation. When tensions are high, so are the risks of an accident. The most dangerous flashpoint is Taiwan. China claims the island as its own territory; America has an implicit commitment to protect it. During the pandemic, China has been testing Taiwan’s defences with aerial sorties and, in March, its first night-time exercise. America may be thinking of sending a high-ranking official to visit.

Neither China nor America seeks war, surely. But they are deliberately hurtling towards an economic separation. The world is thick with talk that more industries should count as strategic. As our special report on banking this week spells out, China is building a parallel financial system that will avoid the dollar-based payment mechanisms—and hence American sanctions. A trade deal between America and China, a minor, pre-covid thawing in their commercial rivalry, may yet fall apart.

Animosity also makes global threats, such as climate change and international crime, harder to deal with. Consider the pandemic itself. This week the European Union held a conference that raised $8bn to finance the search for a vaccine which might save lives and let people go back to work without fear. But America stayed away and China sent an empty-handed ambassador. For those decisions to make sense in Washington and Beijing, something must have gone very wrong.

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