Venezuela, where clashes erupted this week between security forces and demonstrators protesting food shortages, power blackouts and political gridlock, may be headed toward an all-out popular uprising that could lead to the overthrow of its government this year, senior U.S. intelligence officials said.
"You can hear the ice cracking," an intelligence official said. "You know there's a crisis coming."
Disaster is pending in Venezuela at the same time the Obama administration believes that it has vastly improved U.S. standing in Latin America, compared with the days when political and economic turmoil in the hemisphere was blamed, sometimes with reason, on either interference or disregard by Washington.
Venezuela tense, as protesters march against president
There have been many times over the past two decades when the United States has wished for the demise of the left-wing Bolivarian revolution begun by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and carried on since 2013 by his successor, Nicolás Maduro.
The Obama administration and its predecessor have charged the government in Caracas with corruption, human rights abuses and drug smuggling, among other things, and have supported the political opposition.
But policymakers think there is little they can now do to change the fast-deteriorating situation. The main U.S. concern is that a major Latin American country does not collapse.
The days of America rooting for the ouster of Chávez and his revolutionary movement "are over," the intelligence official said. Now, "it's not really the case that the United States is rooting for any outcome, other than that it's not an outbreak of political violence. You'd have to be insane not to worry."
The senior intelligence officials, who briefed a small group of reporters, spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the government.
The opposition has organized a petition drive to recall Maduro. But his government, which still controls the levers of power despite an opposition victory in December's parliamentary elections, has taken steps to delay verification of signatures supporting a recall referendum.
If Maduro was to lose a referendum held before Jan. 10, new elections could be called. If it was after that, the vice president would replace Maduro and hold office until the end of the current presidential term in 2019.
Economic problems, however, may lead to a full-fledged uprising before the political drama plays itself out, according to U.S. intelligence analysis. Mismanagement and a 69 percent drop in the price of Venezuelan oil - the source of virtually all state income - have left the government unable to cover imports and its substantial foreign debt.
Inflation, at around 700 percent, is the highest in the world. The worst drought in half a century has led to water and electricity shortages, with rolling blackouts and government-imposed furloughs for state workers.
Severe shortages of food, medicine and consumer goods, with hours-long lines to purchase basic commodities, led this week to widespread looting that was met with tear gas fired by security forces. Opposition-led protesters took to the streets, demanding that Maduro step down.
Venezuelans struggle with electricity cuts
Chavez had used high oil profits in past years to address the country's widespread poverty and illiteracy and consolidate his control. But by the time his presidency ended with his death from cancer in 2013, high-level corruption was rife, income was falling and violence was spreading.
The intelligence officials outlined three possible change-of-government scenarios. The failure of this year's recall referendum could lead to another petition next year. But the opposition - itself divided and ill-disciplined - has been a disappointment to the Obama administration.
Second, there could be a "palace coup" in which some members of Maduro's government move to oust him with the help of some segment of the military.
The third possible scenario is a military move, possibly led by lower-ranking officers and enlisted members who also are feeling the economic pinch, to remove the government altogether.