The US threw its support behind Mr Guaidó more than three months ago, recognising him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and tightening sanctions on the Maduro regime.
Behind the scenes, it was also supporting secret contacts between the opposition and powerful members of Maduro’s inner circle in the belief they could prise away Mr Maduro’s military support and persuade him to leave power.
What now seems more likely is that Mr Maduro’s international backers, Cuba and Russia, were in on the negotiations from the start and that the apparent conspirators from the Maduro side were feeding back what they learnt from the opposition all along.
Washington’s decision to go public with the conspirators’ names suggests that US officials see no likelihood of reviving those negotiations.
Tuesday’s events, in which the vast bulk of the Venezuelan military failed to switch sides and instead used armed personnel carriers to ram pro-Guaidó demonstrators, bodes ill for any efforts to turn the army against Mr Maduro. In effect, the US now finds itself back where it started in January.
Both Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, suggested this week that while diplomatic means are favoured, military force remains an option. Mr Trump will be less keen and his handling of Venezuela is one of the few foreign policy initiatives that have won him bipartisan support.
Military action would change that, though Mr Maduro’s survival as president would also undermine Mr Trump’s ability to tout Venezuela as a foreign policy success.
To date, the US administration has chiefly relied on sanctions as the main tool of its anti-Maduro strategy, with several rounds imposed on the leadership, the oil sector that finances it and the country’s banks. While more sanctions could be imposed, the list of unsanctioned targets is running short.
A drastic step would be secondary sanctions of the kind imposed on those doing business with Iran, punishing remaining foreign partners of Venezuela’s state oil company. That would risk the ire of several foreign governments, including friendly ones such as Spain and India, as well as Russia, which is already under pressure from Washington over its support for Mr Maduro.
Russia has rejected suggestions that it step back from what Mr Bolton has called “our hemisphere”, and has warned the US against “aggressive steps”. US leverage over Russia is already limited.
There are other potential avenues. On Tuesday, Mr Trump threatened a “full and complete embargo” on Cuba if it did not withdraw support for Mr Maduro, which Washington says includes 25,000 Cuban military and intelligence personnel stationed in Venezuela.
Doubtless US officials are strill trying to engineer a peaceful transition triggered by defections from Mr Maduro’s inner circle. That prize, however, looks a lot more distant than it did at mid-morning on Tuesday.
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