Will Maduro hang on to power? Will the standoff end in war? The embattled nation stands at a crossroads
Venezuela is in turmoil. Both Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó claim to be president – the latter until new elections can be held – and neither has any incentive to back down.
Maduro, who two weeks ago was sworn into his second term following disputed elections last year, has little public support, but he retains the backing of the military.
Guaidó, on the other hand, can mobilise mass displays of popular support, and has the backing of a chorus of western democracies – but little control over the levers of power within Venezuela.
So what are the possible outcomes for this embattled nation and its 32 million citizens – some three million of whom have already fled abroad?
Maduro holds on – but for how long?
Maduro has twice survived previous challenges to his power. After mass protests in 2014, he targeted opposition leaders, such as Guaidó’s political patron, Leopoldo López, who was arrested and barred from running for office. Five years later he is still under house arrest.
Fresh unrest broke out in 2017 when Maduro sidelined the national assembly after it switched hands to the opposition. Demonstrations were met with bloody repression: over 120 protestors killed and hundreds more injured. The crackdown prompted international condemnation, but Maduro succeeded in consolidating his power.
That approach seems less workable today. Although Maduro retains the backing of allies such as Russia, Turkey and Cuba, he has come under unprecedented international pressure including from a dozen Latin American countries.
The military top brass has made a show of support for their commander in chief, but there has been a string of defections by junior officers. At the weekend, Maduro’s military attache to the embassy in Washington DC became the most senior figure to switch sides, followed by the consul in Miami.
Rank and file soldiers have felt the economic impact of the country’s crisis, but Maduro has rewarded senior officers with positions in government and the state oil company PDVSA. But US sanctions on the company unveiled this week could change that.
If Maduro is to survive this current challenge, he’ll have to keep the military onside, and that means finding a way to keep them paid.
Another civilian replaces Maduro or there is a military coup
Another way out of the current standoff – though not one that would benefit the Venezuelan people – would be a military coup that leaves a general or some sympathetic civilian in charge. That would likely mean a return to business as usual: kleptocracy, mismanagement and authoritarianism.
Potential successors in the military would be either Maduro’s lieutenant Diosdado Cabello or defence minister Vladimir Padrino López, both of whom command military support but are widely despised by many Venezuelans. Civilian candidates could be vice president Delcy Rodríguez or her predecessor Tareck El Aissami. Both are international pariahs.
In any case, a change at the top would not satisfy the opposition, now emboldened and set on restoring democracy. And if political options are closed for good, there is a substantial risk that opponents of the regime would turn to the armed struggle – and Latin America has a troubled history vanquishing insurgencies.
Meanwhile, unless a new leader could rebuild the country’s wrecked economy, millions will continue to flee, further destabilising the region.
People power-style regime change or a negotiated exit
A transition back to democracy would be the easiest way out of the current standoff, but Maduro has little to gain and everything to lose by surrendering power.
Even if Maduro agrees to leave, he will not want to risk any reckoning over his authoritarian rule – and neither will thousands of public and military officials who enabled him.
Guaidó has promised amnesty to members of the armed forces who “contribute to the reestablishment of democratic order”.
There are pragmatic reasons for such a move, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based consultant, who offered Colombia’s 2016 peace deal with the leftist FARC rebels as a possible example.
“You cannot have tens of thousands going into exile or be judged by ordinary courts – it would be chaos,” he said.
Maduro and his inner circle would most likely have to leave the country, but it is unclear where he could go. His only major international allies are Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey, and it is unclear what could motivate any of them to receive him.
Maduro has long characterised his country’s woes as the result of a decades-long imperialist campaign of “economic war” waged by the US. It has served him well, rallying his generals and what little support he has behind the flag. Now, however, some analysts fear that hawks in Washington DC and Caracas could drive the two countries into a real war.
The Venezuelan crisis has prompted the most significant migration in Latin America’s modern history, and neighbouring countries are desperate for a swift resolution. “If the trend were to worsen, the pressure for a military strike to end the deadlock would likely increase,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based consultant with Crisis Group. “And that is an outcome we should all be trying to avoid.”
At the moment, such a conflict is still seen as a distant possibility, but conceivably, the rightwing governments of Brazil and Colombia could sign up to a US-led coalition against Maduro.
Such a war – the first interstate war in South America in over 80 years – would be protracted, bloody and fraught with unpredictable variables, but when Donald Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton was photographed holding a legal pad with the note “5,000 troops to Colombia”, it prompted concerns that the US is seriously considering such an option.
“I think Bolton was just bluffing, but if it happens those troops would be a tripwire, ready to trigger a bigger deployment should there be any incursion from Venezuela,” said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Then there’s no telling how it escalates. Any war that involves Colombia and Venezuela would be devastating – both countries have strong airforces so it would be a war fought over infrastructure, military bases and cities – not just the border.”
Source: The Guardian