Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Turmoil in Venezuela

Image result for guaido
Opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez address a crowd in Caracas on April 30, 2019. EPA: Miguel Gutierrez.

The much-hyped coup in Venezuela hasn’t come to pass. Nicolás Maduro has been more tenacious and his grip on power more durable than many observers have expected.

Rival leader Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, has raised global hopes for a transition in power, but so far hasn’t been able to capitalize on the external support he has from widespread support in the Americas, including from the Trump administration. Simply declaring himself president, because the previous presidential elections were rigged, wasn’t enough to budge Maduro from power. Guaidó has attempted to woo Venezuelan citizens, elites, and members of the military to his side, but wooing all of these different actors has been difficult. While Maduro is despised, citizens are wary of Guaidó—his motives, interests, and capabilities as a leader. And they surely haven’t embraced Guaidó enough to get out into the streets en masse.

There have been some elite and military defections, but not enough to swing the internal balance of power to Guaidó’s advantage. It’s clear that Guaidó believed he had significant military support last week, when he called for uprising against Maduro. But lacking military support and numbers on the streets, his attempted putsch went nowhere. Instead, Maduro quickly and easily put down the few thousands of Venezuelans who responded to Guaidó’s call.

It’s apparent that Maduro is walking a tightrope. He clearly wants to preserve his grip on power. At the same time, though, he knows there are limits on the extent to which he can ask military and security forces to repress the political opposition. After all, he hasn’t gone after Guaidó, which he could have done already. And the street battles haven’t been particularly bloody, despite international worries the country could slide into a full-fledged civil war. The reason for these realities is that Maduro knows he can’t make dramatic, hyper-aggressive moves, such as asking his forces to shoot their fellow countrymen/women, because they could result in a wave of negative cascading effects. Indeed, one is the prospect that the military could fully break with Maduro, leaving him vulnerable to being toppled, arrested, or even losing his life. 

Beyond the Guaidó-Maduro battle for power, there’s another power dynamic in play here: the US and Russian battle for influence in the Western Hemisphere. The US sees Venezuela as part of its backyard and thus a part of its sphere of influence. In line with the long-accepted Monroe doctrine, the US wants all foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere—demands with which Russia and China are not complying. Russia, meantime, has a host of political, military, and economic interests at stake in backing Maduro. Moscow worries about what might happen to its array of investments in Venezuela if Maduro is washed aside and a different figure, let alone a reformer, rises to the top. Plus, Russia sees the ongoing crisis in Venezuela as a vehicle to get the US bogged down in its own neighborhood, thereby preventing Washington from meddling in affairs abroad, particularly in Russia’s backyard.

How this plays out remains to be seen. The optimal solution is to guide Maduro peacefully out of office—either immediately or via a phased transition—making way for free and fair democratic elections. It’s what best for Venezuelans, who desperately want and need new and improved leadership. The country is less free, wealthy, and stable on his watch. The puzzle, of course, is how to get to that point.

Up to this point, the US has hoped that recognizing Guaidó, squeezing Maduro’s oil funds, and refusing to rule out a military intervention will do the trick. Combined, all of these things have certainly upped the ante for Maduro, but they haven’t eased him out of power yet. And Guaidó hasn’t helped matters with his ill-timed attempted coup. What’s needed is a clever approach that changes the incentives that Maduro and his senior level cadres currently have about supporting the political status quo.

According to the Washington Post, Venezuela’s political opposition is trying to do precisely that by presenting Maduro loyalists a combination of sticks (rejoining the Rio Treaty) and carrots (the prospect of joining a transitional government). Concurrently, the opposition is engaged in diplomatic talks with a host of international actors, including the global powers and various international institutions. All of this is a good start, though more is needed. Below I briefly suggest a few more things the opposition ought to consider.  

First, the opposition must recognize that allowing Maduro and his cabal to exit the corridors of power with some level of face or prestige intact is one potential concession it may have to make. Yes, that will be a tough pill to swallow for some of the opposition, but it might be necessary. Put simply, if Maduro believes he doesn’t have a safe exit option, then, by default, he’ll cling to power for self-preservation purposes.  

Second, I’d advise the opposition to tend toward inclusivity. This is controversial, however. Some opposition members are firmly against allowing any of Maduro’s cadre, especially the very people responsible for Venezuela’s plight, a continued role in politics. That’s understandable. But drawing in the middle and lower strata of Maduro’s circle might be possible, and shouldn’t be ruled out. Look, there’s already bad blood between Chavez and Maduro backers and supporters and the opposition; the key now is to try to find ways to dampen those tensions over both the short- and long-term. Creating an environment that’s palatable to, perhaps, the outer rungs of the old guard is a good thing: it can pave the way for all sides to build trust, create a stake in the changing political system, and move on from the past and look toward the future.

To be clear, in the two arguments above, I’m not suggesting that the opposition should give, without hesitation, Maduro and his acolytes a blanket clean slate. Of course, a new Venezuelan government should be guided by the rule of law. But this government will have to make hard decisions. And in the long-run, it might be best for the nation if some of the old guard are mostly left alone and permitted to retire in peace or allowed to defect to another country, rather than seeking retribution through the courts. The latter route, while maybe legally sensible, risks opening up and deepening existing political fissures in a nation that’s already fragile, unstable, and trending toward violence. 

Third, Guaidó will have to convince the major external players, like Cuba and Russia and the US, that their interests won’t be significantly jeopardized with a new government/regime. Yes, the US will be on board with what seems to be a reform-minded government, though, even here, Guaidó will have to sync his positions and policies with those of the Trump administration. After all, the White House is the biggest and most vigorous international backer he has right now. Cuba and Russia are a different story. Both countries receive considerable political and economic benefits from Venezuela as it currently operates. They will need, at a minimum, a clear statement of how they fit into a Guaidó administration’s plans and reassurance that they won’t be significantly adversely impacted if Maduro leaves/is toppled. Otherwise, Guaidó should expect stiff resistance from Cuba and Russia, and both will undermine his rule until he plays nice with them.  

The above suggestions aren't the only things Guaidó should do right now. I've simply identified some of the most important immediate tasks in order for him and the opposition to ease Maduro out of power. Keep in mind we're witnessing the first stages in a very long game. For even if Guaidó is successful, the problems and complexities don't end there. An entirely new set of governing challenges will emerge. And those are bound to test even the most astute political leaders. Let's hope that Guaidó, or whomever next takes the reins of power, is ready for the moment.