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In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit
In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit
Venezuela Elections December 2015. CRISISGROUP/Sofia Martinez

What We Heard in Caracas

President Trump’s tough talk and actions opened the door for change in Venezuela. Now the U.S. must avoid hardline inflexibility that could close it, ending the chance of achieving internal peace through an interim power arrangement between the country’s duelling presidents.

 

It’s hard for the two sides in Venezuela’s political conflict to agree on virtually anything, what with dueling presidents, competing institutions, and diametrically opposed visions. But in a brief visit to Caracas this week, we found broad consensus on one point: It all depends on Donald Trump.

The Venezuelan crisis is not new. President Nicolás Maduro and those immediately around him bear primary responsibility: They’ve badly mismanaged the country, trampled its democratic institutions, stage-managed elections, benefited from massive corruption, and brutally repressed protesters. The consequences are plain to see, if almost impossible to fathom. Although Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, its economy is in free fall.

The country faces widespread poverty, malnutrition, and diseases that not long ago had been eradicated. At least 3 million of its citizens—probably far more—have fled, to Colombia and elsewhere. The two sides engaged in various rounds of negotiations, but the political situation reached an impasse. The government stripped the opposition-dominated National Assembly of any power; the bulk of the opposition boycotted the presidential elections and refused to recognize the newly reelected president.

Enter the Trump administration. Working with leading opposition members and building on growing popular unrest, it worked out a straightforward strategy: Recognize Juan Guaidó, chairman of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president; grant him international support as well as access to foreign oil revenues and assets; impose crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector; and convince Venezuela’s military and other key regime constituencies that they have everything to lose by backing Maduro, and much to gain by lining up behind Guaidó, who, after presiding over an interim government, and bolstered by U.S. economic largesse, would organize new elections. The bet is that the members of Venezuela’s military and political elite will turn against Maduro once he no longer can provide them with the financial benefits they’ve become accustomed to.

Even pro-Guaidó politicians admit they have little confidence that this will end peacefully or according to plan.

Unlike most of President Trump’s gambits, this one was not the product of an errant tweet. Judging by the speed with which an impressive number of other governments followed the U.S. lead, the decision was well coordinated and planned. Now all it needs to do is succeed.

Viewed from Caracas, however, the future looks a tad more uncertain. Guaidó backers we met celebrate what they see as a perfect storm. The opposition appears more united than ever and enjoys unprecedented international and regional backing. Venezuela is suffering through an economic crisis of almost mythic proportions that the vast majority of Venezuelans blame on Maduro. The opposition leader is enjoying sky-high popularity. And there is no evident way out for an embattled president whose situation—economically, politically, diplomatically—they assume will only deteriorate with time.

Dig a little deeper, however, and even pro-Guaidó politicians admit they have little confidence that this will end peacefully or according to plan. They can’t imagine that Maduro, with so much to lose, will back down. They don’t trust that the military elite, which benefits so much from its control over licit and illicit businesses and which so far they have failed to reassure about its future, will defect. They wonder aloud about a possible U.S. military intervention, believing it could precipitate Maduro’s departure but also a future of violence and chaos in a country awash in weapons and replete with semiautonomous domestic and foreign armed groups. Right now, in short, they are riding high. But, they concede, that hardly means they are riding smoothly toward a denouement.

Robert Malley and Robert Fadel meeting with the Papal Nuncio in Caracas, Venezuela. They discussed ideas for a peaceful resolution of Venezuela's crisis. February 2019 CRISISGROUP/Ivan Briscoe

Those in Maduro’s camp, although unsettled by the depth of popular anger and breadth of international consensus and worried about what the United States might do, add to that list other reasons not to panic. They feel that what they need to do is stand fast, resist, and wait for that perfect storm to pass. They believe that if Maduro is still in power in two or three months, the opposition will lose its momentum and sense of inevitability; cracks will reemerge from within opposition ranks; and, as Venezuela’s economy craters and refugee flows soar, the world’s focus will shift from how to change the regime to how to stem the disaster. They argue that whatever divisions once existed within the broad camp comprising followers of former President Hugo Chávez—and, some acknowledge, those divisions and questioning of Maduro’s stewardship had indeed been growing—have been pushed aside as all close ranks in the face of what they describe as the attempted imposition of a new leader by the outside, a leader they associate with Latin America’s resurgent right, and imposed by the detested gringos, no less.

They also suspect that Guaidó’s political luster will fade. Not only will his presidency be shown to be devoid of actual power, but the political cost of the sanctions will shift from their shoulders to his. Although the public may be enamored with the opposition leader today, it will become disenchanted with him tomorrow, and wonder how he could possibly back American economic punitive measures that will have immeasurably worsened their lot.

Listen carefully to what more pragmatic voices on both sides say privately, and some intriguing ideas begin to surface. From some in the pro-Guaidó camp comes recognition that what Maduro and his allies currently have been offered is a choice between standing firm and surrendering, that they will likely choose the former, and that therefore if a peaceful solution is to be found, some compromise solution is needed, albeit one in which the government makes major concessions. Maybe an interim power arrangement that includes Maduro and Guaidó or neither of them, so long as the powers of the National Assembly are restored, the electoral commission is reconstituted, political prisoners are released, and early presidential elections under international supervision take place.

From some in the pro-Maduro camp comes acknowledgment of the deficiencies of the current leadership and a willingness to consider early elections, so long as U.S. threats and sanctions are removed and an interim Guaidó presidency is not forced on them. From some in both camps comes agreement that no one can voice these sorts of views publicly lest they be roundly condemned and discredited by their respective harder-line allies. This is a situation that cries for outside mediation.

Reenter the Trump administration. As we spoke to one of the more pragmatic opposition parliamentarians, he offered this curious thought: “Trump’s unyielding support is a gift that can do us harm.” What he meant was that the U.S. president had played a crucial role in altering the country’s political dynamics. As we visited the National Assembly, commotion stirred. We looked up to see Guaidó walking freely amid a throng of journalists and colleagues. That he could do so without fear of arrest or worse, his colleagues remarked, was a direct consequence of U.S. protection and of the implicit threat that, should something happen to him, something would happen to the government.

There is no guarantee that a compromise could be found even if the United States were to moderate its stance and acquiesce in third-party efforts to reach a deal.

But what the parliamentarian also meant was that if Washington’s hard-line stance had pried open the door to a genuine transition, its inflexible posture risked slamming it shut. It would be difficult for an opposition member to stray too far from what Trump says, and if Trump says no negotiations and no compromise, then that was the baseline against which opposition members would be judged. He worried that, emboldened by U.S, support, the opposition would overplay its hand and miss an opportunity for a negotiated outcome. He and his colleagues needed the United States and its Latin American allies to complement their pressure with some additional margin of maneuver, some political cover, to enable them to safely prod and probe what might be possible and enter into discussions with a third-party mediator.

Absent such leeway, he feared an ugly scenario: Maduro doesn’t budge, the military refuses to act, violent escalation ensues—whether sparked by a U.S. intervention or something else—and Venezuela plunges into chaos. It’s easy for an American to tell a Venezuelan to keep his or her nerve, to be resolute and unyielding. It’s the Venezuelan who will suffer the consequences.

There is, of course, no guarantee, indeed possibly not even good odds, that a compromise could be found even if the United States were to moderate its stance and acquiesce in third-party efforts to reach a deal. The regime has mastered the art of negotiating for the sake of negotiating, of wasting time for the sake of survival. Even between the two sides’ more pragmatic elements, the gaps remain wide, and it’s hard to know whether their compromise proposals are genuine or simply meant to mollify overly insistent outsiders. But it’s worth testing, and the best test would come if a small group of countries, some trusted by the opposition and others by the regime, took up the task.

For now, in Caracas, such ideas seem somewhat detached from reality. For now, Venezuelans wonder what the military will do: stick with Maduro or split from him. For now, all eyes—the opposition’s as well as the government’s—are on Trump. An opposition deputy who clearly was full of gratitude for what the U.S. president had done put it this way: “It’s all in Trump’s hands. Whether he doubles down on pressure. Whether he gives us the space we need to negotiate. Whether, if he fails to dislodge Maduro after a few months, he loses interest or orders a military intervention. Yes, it’s all in Trump’s hands. God help us.”

This article was first published in The Atlantic magazine, which published it first on 7 February 2019.

Contributors

President & CEO
Rob_Malley
Robert Fadel
Former Member of Parliament in Lebanon; Owner & Board member of the ABC Group
Juan Guaido, President of Venezuela's National Assembly, reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government. Venezuela January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit

The Venezuelan National Assembly’s chairman, Juan Guaidó, has declared himself interim president, with the support of several foreign governments. Unless the Venezuelan military backs his move, it is unlikely to topple incumbent President Nicolás Maduro and could unleash greater repression and even outside military intervention.

What is happening in Venezuela?

On 23 January, amid a mass opposition demonstration that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, opposition politician Juan Guaidó, chairman of the National Assembly – now the institution with the most democratic legitimacy in the country, given it was elected in Venezuela’s last free and fair elections in 2015 – announced that he was assuming the presidency of the republic, in defiance of President Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term only two weeks earlier. Following several days marked by public assemblies, wildcat protests and a small military uprising against Maduro, opposition parties in the Assembly backed Guaidó’s move. He was immediately recognised as president by the U.S., Canada and a dozen other western hemisphere nations, including Brazil and Colombia, leaving Venezuela with two men claiming to be president.

Who is Juan Guaidó and why has he proclaimed himself president?

Juan Guaidó is a 35-year-old member of parliament from the opposition Voluntad Popular party. He was elected chairman of the National Assembly on 5 January, in accordance with an opposition agreement to rotate this position among the different political parties. His name and face were unfamiliar to most Venezuelans because he was a relatively low-ranking member of Voluntad Popular. This party’s leader, Leopoldo López, is under house arrest; number two Carlos Vecchio was forced into exile; and number three Freddy Guevara, fearing arrest, recently sought asylum at the Chilean embassy, leaving the party in the hands of more junior politicians unknown to the public. But this has proven an asset to the opposition, whose jaded supporters welcomed a fresh face and flocked to public meetings in support of his plan for a transitional government. A variety of governments across the Americas view elections on 20 May 2018 that saw Maduro win a second term in office as fundamentally flawed, and support the opposition’s claim that he is now usurping the presidency. Guaidó has asserted the right to assume an interim presidency, under Article 233 of the Constitution, which determines that if the National Assembly rules the president is failing to meet his or her basic duties or has vacated the post, the chair of the Assembly is entitled to assume power temporarily and declare elections within 30 days.

What is the likely impact on the Venezuelan crisis?

The calculation of the opposition and its foreign allies appears to be that by claiming the interim presidency, demonstrating massive popular support across the country and among all sectors of society – including from former government loyalists enraged by hyper-inflation and food scarcity – and obtaining powerful international backing, Guaidó will force a split in either the Maduro government or, perhaps more critically, the armed forces. If elements of the military with sufficient firepower were to break with Maduro, they could force him from power or oblige him to negotiate his departure from office. In theory, this development would enable Guaidó to take the reins of government and call fresh general elections.

If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him.

While it is still early, thus far no senior military official or leader of military units has announced support for Guaidó’s interim government. Indeed, the high command pledged its continuing loyalty to Maduro. For now at least, the split the opposition hoped for has not materialised. If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him.

The question is whether the opposition or its foreign backers have a back-up plan. If not – and there is no overt sign that they do – and if their current plan does not succeed soon, their position could become extremely precarious, as they will be vulnerable to a Maduro crackdown. At that point, the ball will return to Guaidó’s foreign backers’ court. They could then face the uncomfortable dilemma of doing little and appearing impotent, or courting disaster by intervening militarily.

What role do foreign governments play?

President Trump has said he will hold Maduro “directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people”. Soon after Washington recognised Guaidó as president, Maduro broke diplomatic relations with the U.S. and ordered its diplomats to leave within 72 hours. Washington has refused to pull them out, saying it would only recognise the actions of the new government.

The European Union and some other Latin American governments are still calling for a negotiated solution leading to free elections.

The standoff raises the prospect of several dangerous scenarios. Supporters of Maduro or the security forces could organise a siege of the U.S. embassy in Caracas. Maduro could also call Washington’s bluff, and crack down on his detractors anyway, assuming that threatened actions will be limited to more sanctions, perhaps including an oil embargo, and that he can withstand the pressure. Though President Trump over the past year has occasionally hinted that a foreign military intervention could oust Maduro, there are no signs such an intervention is imminent. That could change depending on the way U.S. diplomats are treated or should the sitting government decide to arrest or persecute the presumptive president or dissolve the National Assembly.

Other governments in the hemisphere that have recognised Guaidó are likely to follow the U.S. lead in applying more sanctions. But the international community is far from united. Russia, China, Turkey, Iran and several Latin American nations, including Bolivia, Cuba and Nicaragua, have given their backing to Maduro. For their part, the European Union and some other Latin American governments, notably Mexico and Uruguay, are still calling for a negotiated solution leading to free elections, even as the EU in particular has been vocal in its support for the Assembly’s campaign to restore democracy in Venezuela.

This latter course still seems the least dangerous path out of the crisis. But success will depend in part on firm international support to create conditions for meaningful talks. The EU has proposed establishing a Contact Group, aimed at bringing together opponents and allies of Maduro. Such a group, which should be broad and include countries viewed as neutral, would represent an important step in this direction. Whether Maduro is toppled or not, reaching a workable political settlement between his supporters and those of Guaidó will be crucial to achieving a peaceful and sustainable transition. This is all the more important in light of the presence of numerous state and non-state armed factions on Venezuelan soil and the urgent need to stabilise the collapsing economy.