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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


COVID-19

  • The WHO noticed a “significant resurgence” of coronavirus cases in 11 European countries, with the number of new weekly European cases rising for the first time in months last week.

  • At least seven U.S. states (Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, South Carolina, Maine, Oregon, Idaho) are pausing or slowing reopening plans because of a rise in new cases.

  • Here’s one piece of potentially good news resulting from the pandemic: Israel announced a new partnership with the UAE to fight the virus, which could lead to better cooperation between the two.

Afghanistan

  • The head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, warned that the Taliban is highlighting official corruption in Afghanistan to weaken the government’s bargaining position during peace talks. Sopko also points out—correctly—that corruption is a real issue, so he’s unlikely to buy Pres. Ghani’s official line that “the government has done a lot to tackle corruption and that has to be seen.”

  • Afghan opium production (measured by the area growing opium poppy) was down 38% in 2019 vs. 2018. The UN’s World Drug Report attributes the decline to a drop in the farm-gate price for opium, which made it less attractive to farm.

Pakistan

  • In a rambling budget speech, PM Khan lashed out at the U.S. for “abusive language” criticizing Pakistan for not doing enough to fight terror, and even said the U.S. “martyred” Osama bin Laden (“martyr” connotes honor in death). Khan is probably pissed that Pakistan is consistently called out in the State Department’s annual report on terrorism for failing to do much about the issue.

Syria

  • The U.S. probably deployed a specially designed “ninja bomb” to kill the leaders of an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria on June 14th. The R9X missile—actually a variation of the Hellfire—featured six long knives that deploy just before impact (rather than explosives), and was designed to have a much smaller kill radius so it can more safely be used in urban areas crowded with non combatants. The traditional Hellfire, by contrast, could kill anything within a 700-foot radius.

Sahel

  • An armed group abducted ten aid workers distributing food in Tillaberi, southwestern Niger—the same region where a German aid worker and Italian priest were abducted in 2018.

DRC

  • DRC’s eastern Ebola outbreak was officially declared over after almost two years and 2,280 deaths—as opposed to the newer, separate outbreak in western DRC that continues (albeit at a slower pace than the eastern outbreak). These are DRC’s 10th and 11th known Ebola outbreaks; DRC also still faces the world’s largest measles epidemic, and an unknown number of coronavirus cases.

  • The governor of southeastern (and cobalt-rich) Lualaba province declared that all artisanal mining product must be tested and sold at a central trade hub starting June 29th (artisanal sales were temporarily suspended so sellers don’t rush their inventory to market ahead of the rule). The move is supposed to fight fraud and stop the spread of COVID-19, but the government clearly stands to gain from higher tax revenues. It’s also consistent with a national effort to centralize cobalt trading under a new state monopoly, the Entreprise Generale de Cobalt.

Venezuela

  • The Economist had a great article on “How Venezuela’s regime plans to win this year’s legislative election,” filled with the newspaper’s typical comedic flair for writing about dictators like Pres. Maduro. See below.

  • The WSJ also had a good piece on Venezuela (also pasted below): it says senior opposition backer Leopoldo López—who founded Pres. Guaido’s former political party—shopped from at least six mercenary proposals aimed at overthrowing Pres. Maduro before selecting the plan that failed in May.

China

  • The U.S. Senate passed legislation that would require sanctions on people and companies that help China restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy. While the bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent, it still has to pass the House and get Pres. Trump’s signature, which is not guaranteed.

  • Former British PM Tony Blair said the UK will likely side with the U.S. in trying to edge China’s Huawei out of its communications networks. Huawei already has a foot in the door, though: it recently received preliminary approval to build a $1.2 billion research center in England.

Other News

  • Climate activists are concerned that the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk—known for sharing the Northern Hemisphere’s cold record of -90°F and being a place where you can snowmobile in June—roasted in temperatures over 100°F on Saturday.

  • The presidents of Serbia and Kosovo were supposed to meet in Washington, DC this Sunday, but the meeting was postponed after a special court in The Hague charged Kosovo’s president with war crimes dating back to the 1990s.

How Venezuela’s regime plans to win this year’s legislative election (Economist)

Nicolás Maduro, though reviled by most voters, is manoeuvring to secure victory

Whenever he appears on Venezuelan state television, Nicolás Maduro is introduced as “el presidente constitucional”, the constitutional president. The announcer often reminds viewers that he is “legitimate”, too. The reminder is needed because Mr Maduro is a dictator. It shows, too, the regime’s craving for legitimacy. Mr Maduro’s belief in his right to rule comes in part from the status he claims as the heir of the late Hugo Chávez, the regime’s founder (pictured, far left) and, less plausibly, Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s liberator (centre). He also wants the affirmation that comes from a popular mandate, even though just 13% of Venezuelans back the regime, according to Datanálisis, a polling firm. To that end, he has sought to keep democracy’s form even as he drains it of content.


With a legislative election due by December, this month the regime took two big steps to ensure it will not lose. The current National Assembly is the only arm of the state controlled by the opposition. Its president, Juan Guaidó, is recognised by nearly 60 countries as Venezuela’s interim president (on the grounds that Mr Maduro rigged his re-election in 2018). Mr Maduro has in effect stripped the legislature of its powers. Now he is manoeuvring to bring it under direct control of the regime.

On June 12th the Supreme Court, an appendage of the regime, appointed new members to the National Electoral Council (cne), which oversees elections. The cne’s reform has been a central demand of Mr Guaidó and his foreign supporters. This shake-up is not that reform. Three of the five new members are allies of the regime, like the last slate. The three are subject to sanctions by the United States and Canada for human-rights abuses or financial crimes or both. The other newcomers are members of the opposition who have broken with its leaders.

To guarantee victory in the parliamentary vote, though, more is needed. On June 15th the Supreme Court ruled that control of one opposition party, Democratic Action, should pass to Bernabé Gutiérrez, who was previously expelled from that party for “conspiring with the regime of Nicolás Maduro”. Mr Gutiérrez is the brother of one of the cne’s new members. On the next day the court suspended, then replaced, the directors of Justice First, whose best known member is Henrique Capriles, once a presidential candidate. The regime has not yet targeted Mr Guaidó’s Popular Will party. But the attorney-general proposes branding it a terrorist organisation.

The regime is assaulting an opposition in disarray. After 18 months of failed attempts to unseat Mr Maduro, Mr Guaidó is struggling to look relevant. He gave initial backing to a hare-brained plot for American mercenaries to kidnap Mr Maduro, which flopped in March. Mr Guaidó’s approval rating has dropped from 61% in February 2019 to 26%. The covid-19 pandemic has further constrained him. Mr Maduro has locked down the country, thwarting protests and reinforcing the impression that his rival counts for little.

Mr Guaidó and his allies must now decide how to react to fraud in the legislative election. Some factions of the opposition may participate to guarantee their political futures, as some did in the presidential election in 2018. That would confuse opposition supporters and give Mr Maduro a chance to claim the vote is fair. “Such dynamics will all but guarantee that the opposition loses control of the National Assembly,” says Eurasia Group, a consultancy. Opposition legislators who are not re-elected would lose immunity from prosecution, points out Crisis Group, a think-tank. That would force them into exile.

If Mr Guaidó no longer leads the legislature, his foreign allies will also have to have a rethink. Some already regret recognising him as interim president. “It seemed like a good plan at the time,” said one forlorn Western diplomat in Caracas. Mr Guaidó’s most important patron, President Donald Trump, was never really behind him, it seems. In an interview on June 12th with Axios, a news website, he comes across as uninterested in his administration’s decision to back Mr Guaidó. “I could have lived with it or without it,” he said. Mr Maduro must have smiled.

Not everything is going his way. The production of oil, Venezuela’s main source of foreign income, has slumped to the lowest levels since the 1920s. Its price is low. By the end of this year, in real terms the economy is expected to be a fifth the size it was in 2013, when Mr Maduro became president. American economic sanctions are biting. There is less cash to buy loyalty from the armed forces, the final arbiter of the regime’s fate. It will someday fall.

Venezuelans who yearn for change have little hope. “They have won,” said a disillusioned teacher, who has been protesting against the regime since 2007. “I honestly believe this country is lost.”■

Venezuelan Opposition Guru Led Planning to Topple Maduro (WSJ)

Leopoldo López and allies shopped for mercenaries before failed attempt to overthrow regime

The politically influential mentor of U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó was behind a monthslong effort to contract mercenaries to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, according to several people involved in the planning.

Leopoldo López, founder of Mr. Guaidó’s former political party, and other allies considered at least six proposals from private security contractors to carry out military incursions to spur a rebellion in Venezuela’s armed forces and topple the authoritarian president, these people told The Wall Street Journal.

One of the contractors was eventually involved in an attempted incursion in May that was over almost before it began, ending with eight of the mercenaries killed and nearly 50 detained, including two former U.S. soldiers, all of whom are still being held in a Caracas prison.

Mr. Maduro emerged triumphant and his political adversaries have been left fractured, demoralized and lacking a clear strategy. Some foreign allies of the opposition say Mr. Guaidó and his associates should have stuck to negotiations with the Maduro regime and are now questioning their support for the opposition leader.

“Guaidó has damaged his democratic credentials,” said a high-ranking European diplomat who has worked on Venezuela policy. “He gives the impression he’s trying to ride two horses, one on the negotiating track and one more on the coup d’état track.”

Mr. Guaidó and associates of Mr. López have said the May raid was the work of the Maduro regime and that they had cut off contact last year with the group that carried it out.

Most Venezuelans revile Mr. Maduro for the country’s devastating economic meltdown, with only 13% supporting him in a May poll by Caracas firm Datanalisis.

But Mr. Guaidó hasn’t been able to capitalize. His support has eroded steadily from the 61% he enjoyed in January 2019, when the opposition proclaimed him president in a direct challenge to Mr. Maduro. The U.S. and more than 50 countries recognized Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Mr. Guaidó saw his approval fall to 25%—its lowest point yet—in May after the failed plot, according to the Datanalisis poll. Venezuelans are now overwhelmingly pessimistic a transition will take place.

“He started as a sort of a Venezuelan version of Obama,” Datanalisis Director Luis Vicente León said of Mr. Guaidó. “Now the people just don’t believe him. When you lose the hope for change, you also lose your capacity to ask people for sacrifice.”

Within the fractious coalition of opposition parties, much of the blame is now being directed at Mr. López, a 49-year-old Harvard-educated politician and former political prisoner from one of Venezuela’s most prominent families.

For years, he has advocated direct action to remove Mr. Maduro—from a series of protests in 2014 that turned violent to an attempt to spur an uprising in the military ranks last year—often clashing over strategy with other prominent regime foes.

In 2018, after Mr. Maduro was re-elected in a vote widely seen as fraudulent, Mr. López expressed the view that negotiations and the electoral route would take too much time, said a person who spoke with him about strategy.

“He was very concerned that unless something was done soon, then the Venezuelan people would end up like the Cuban people, absolutely passive and broken and unable to mount a defense of themselves,” said the person, who is familiar with the dynamics in the opposition and U.S. policy.

Mr. López couldn’t comment for this article because he can’t speak publicly as part of an agreement with Spain. Now living in the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas, where he is protected from arrest, he remains a powerful political force with influence over Mr. Guaidó, providing leadership on matters ranging from regime change to overhauling the oil industry, opposition activists said.

“One of the biggest errors that the opposition has committed is getting behind Leopoldo López,” said Humberto Calderon-Berti, who served as Mr. Guaidó’s envoy to Colombia until a public spat with Mr. López last year. “In the end, he’s only damaging Guaidó. There has to be a rectification of the strategy, the leadership.”

Mr. Calderon-Berti said he advised opposition parties last year to avoid engaging Venezuelan military defectors to attempt to oust Mr. Maduro, fearing violence would alienate the opposition’s international alliances. Mr. Calderon-Berti isn’t a member of Popular Will, the party that was founded by Mr. López and was Mr. Guaidó’s path to leadership.

Several prominent members of Popular Will have quit the party this month, saying privately they could no longer contend with Mr. López’s heavy hand and the party’s policies, which they saw as damaging the opposition.

Mr. Guaidó said some of his advisers met with the organizers of the failed raid early last year to evaluate strategies for an incursion. He said, however, that his advisers cut off contact nearly six months before the raid took place over what he said were disagreements over strategy.

Party leaders said that by October 2019, operation planning had been infiltrated by Venezuelan intelligence operatives. Some in the party reported details of the infiltration to U.S. and Colombian officials that month.

“It wasn’t just infiltrated, but it was an operation financed by the dictatorship,“ Mr. Guaidó said in a videoconference last month. “The only one served by that operation was the Maduro regime.”

Popular Will members say that their party has favored negotiations and initiated talks overseen by Norway in 2019 that later faltered. Mr. Guaidó has frequently said the problem is the regime, which he said negotiates in bad faith.

Officials in the Trump administration said the operation in May hasn’t hurt Mr. Guaidó or the opposition—and that it could have been a false flag organized by Mr. Maduro’s regime to score propaganda points. Administration officials have denied any involvement or knowledge of the raid.

The raid “was big news for a couple of days and then faded, and has had no lasting impact on U.S. policy or on the Venezuelan democratic opposition,” said Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela. “This is largely because there are so many unanswered questions about regime involvement in conceiving, financing and pushing forward the entire operation.”

In his new book on the Trump White House, former national security adviser John Bolton said the president openly doubted whether Mr. Guaidó had the heft to challenge Mr. Maduro. By spring 2019, he wrote, “Trump was calling Guaidó the ‘Beto O’Rourke of Venezuela,’ hardly the sort of compliment an ally of the United States should expect.”

Mr. Trump thought invading Venezuela would be “cool,” and ordered him to look into military options, Mr. Bolton wrote. Mr. Bolton and others said a military option was a non-starter and successfully dissuaded him, he wrote.

Mr. Trump told the Journal in an interview that Mr. Bolton “is a liar.”

In 2019, while some leaders in the Venezuelan opposition and diplomats pursued negotiations with Mr. Maduro to win the right for free and fair elections, Mr. López and his closest aides shopped around for a security firm without having alerted politicians in other anti-Maduro parties, said people involved in the planning and other opposition leaders. Though they heard pitches from various contractors, opposition figures close to Messrs. Guaidó and López said the meetings rarely went beyond informal conversations.

“If one of these proposals had been viable, we would have taken that option immediately,” said an opposition figure close to the two men. “We have no ethical problem with getting rid of Nicolás Maduro.”

By late spring last year, several close friends of Mr. López and members of his party were plotting with Jordan Goudreau, a U.S. Army war veteran and owner of the SilverCorp USA security firm in Florida, and a former Venezuelan general who had relocated to Colombia, Cliver Alcala. They were training a ragtag force of Venezuelans who had deserted the armed forces to camps in northeastern Colombia, not far from Venezuela.

In October, a senior Guaidó aide and Popular Will official signed a contract with Mr. Goudreau to unseat Mr. Maduro and replace him with Mr. Guaidó, under whose government the American mercenary would work as defense adviser, according to the contract.

Associates of Mr. López introduced Messrs. Alcala and Goudreau to other opposition leaders in several meetings in Bogotá, where they sought between $2 million and $7 million from the opposition leaders to finance a raid, according to people familiar with the talks.

Toward the end of the year, opposition figures said, it became clear the plan wasn’t viable because it underestimated the regime’s military defenses and there were too few volunteer fighters. The opposition didn’t pay Mr. Goudreau the hundreds of thousands of dollars he said he wanted, giving him only $50,000 for expenses before cutting all ties by late 2019.

Mr. Goudreau, who was in Florida at the time of the operation, hasn’t said why he ordered the mission to go forward in early May, as he has publicly acknowledged. He didn’t respond to requests seeking comment for this article.

Opposition leaders now say it was a mistake for Popular Will members to sit down with mercenaries.

“They were the ones who legitimized Goudreau and the idea of this whole operation,” said one who had been tracking mission-planning in Bogotá. “Let’s hope there are no other rogue actions in the future.”

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