The United States is increasingly concerned about the potential for an economic and political meltdown in Venezuela, spurred by fears of a debt default, growing street protests and deterioration of its oil sector, U.S. intelligence officials said on Friday.
In a bleak assessment of Venezuela's worsening crisis, the senior officials expressed doubt that unpopular leftist President Nicolas Maduro would allow a recall referendum this year, despite opposition-led protests demanding a vote to decide whether he stays in office.
But the two officials, briefing a small group of reporters in Washington, predicted that Maduro, who heads Latin America's most ardently anti-U.S. government and a major U.S. oil supplier, was not likely to be able to complete his term, which is due to end after elections in late 2018.
They said one "plausible" scenario would be that Maduro's own party or powerful political figures would force him out and would not rule out the possibility of a military coup. Still, they said there was no evidence of any active plotting or that he had lost support from the country's generals.
The officials appeared to acknowledge that Washington has little leverage in how the situation unfolds in Venezuela, where any U.S. role draws government accusations of U.S.-aided conspiracies. Instead, the administration of President Barack Obama wants "regional" efforts to help keep the country from sliding into chaos.
"You can hear the ice cracking. You know there's a crisis coming," one U.S. official said. "Our pressure on this isn't going to resolve this issue."