CARACAS – The Trump administration has indicted Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and more than a dozen members of his inner circle, stepping up measures to drive the socialist leader from power. U.S. prosecutors announced the charges Thursday, accusing Maduro of narcoterrorism. Washington backs opposition politician Juan Guaidó, who seeks to oust Maduro. The indictments come as Maduro has locked down Venezuela to halt the spread of the new coronavirus and as the oil-producing nation grapples with plunging global crude prices. Here is how the U.S. indictments fit into Venezuela's tumultuous political, social and economic landscape:
WHAT THE INDICTMENTS SAY
The U.S. Department of Justice accuses Maduro and his inner circle of turning Venezuela into a criminal enterprise at the service of drug traffickers and terrorist groups as he and his allies allegedly stole billions from the South American country with vast natural resources, including gold and oil.
Maduro, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, among others, are accused of conspiring with Colombian rebels and members of the Venezuelan military for several years “to flood the United States with cocaine” and use the drug trade as a “weapon against America.”
Maduro blasted the indictments, calling President Donald Trump a “racist cowboy” who manages international affairs like a “New York mafia con artist.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
The U.S. and Venezuela have been ideological foes for two decades, since late President Hugo Chávez launched the South America nation's socialist revolution. Critics say the policies continued by Maduro have sent the nation plunging into its current political and economic crisis.
The Trump administration was first among more than 50 nations in early 2019 to back Guaidó, who claimed presidential powers and vowed to oust Maduro and end the nation's crisis that sent roughly five million Venezuelans to emigrate. Guaidó claims Maduro's 2018 election was fraudulent because the most popular opposition politicians were banned.
Prior to the indictment, the White House hit Maduro, dozens of his associates and the state-run oil firm PDVSA with financial sanctions.
However, Maduro clings to power, maintaining control over Venezuela's major institutions and the military. Military leaders across the nation on Friday appeared on state TV to pledge their support for Maduro, who has support from China, Russia and Cuba.
THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS
Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and Americas Society research center, said Friday that the indictments further isolate Maduro.
Farnsworth said that the criminal indictment doesn't cut off the possibility of backchannel negotiating for Maduro's exit. Rather, he said that the $15 million bounty for Maduro's arrest creates incentive for him to consider abandoning Venezuela for a new life elsewhere.
“He’s got to be looking over his shoulder all the time," Farnsworth said. "There’s a $15 million bounty on your head in a country that’s starving and awash with weapons. That is something he has to be even more mindful of.”
HOW IT IMPACTS GUAIDÓ
The same day the U.S. indictments became public, Maduro's chief prosecutor opened an investigation against the opposition leader for allegedly plotting a coup with a retired Venezuelan army officer in neighboring Colombia.
However, Maduro's government has repeatedly launched investigations into Guaidó and threatened to arrest him. Guaidó often endures threats from Maduro supporters, but he has not been arrested. Experts say they fear it could trigger a foreign intervention.
Maduro has warned that Guaidó will eventually pay for his alleged crimes.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Experts are divided on what's next for Venezuela. The slow-motion collapse could continue for years as more Venezuelans emigrate, or leaders in border states could break away to care for their regions independently as leaders in the capital of Caracas lose control.
Crashing global oil prices and the inability of the government to cope with the new coronavirus could prompt an uprising from within Maduro's inner circle, possibly the military, analysts say.
“Venezuela is going to be a country that will look a lot different a year from now," Farnsworth said.
Follow Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP