Venezuela: Between Hope and Uncertainty

Irene Estefania Gonzalez / Inter-American Dialogue

On February 4, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted an event titled “Venezuela: Between Hope and Uncertainty” to discuss the possible scenarios in which the Venezuelan crisis might unfold. Ambassador Carlos Vecchio, designated by Juan Guaidó’s transitional government, delivered the opening remarks, which were followed by a panel moderated by Michael Shifter featuring professor Michael Penfold (IESA), Luis Vicente León (Datanalisis) and Risa Grais-Targow (Eurasia Group).

Shifter introduced the panel and stressed the Dialogue’s long history of studying Venezuela, starting with the Venezuela Taskforce in the 1980s and now with its Venezuela Working Group, headed by Dialogue co-chair and former president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla. He also provided context for Venezuela’s current crisis, in which large groups of Venezuelans have taken to the streets in support of National Assembly president Juan Guaidó. Guaidó has invoked article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution to claim the interim presidency. He framed this movement as seeking to reverse the democratic deterioration the country has experienced. Shifter also mentioned that Maduro has never appeared weaker or the opposition stronger. However, Maduro still retains the support from the military’s top brass.

Ambassador Vecchio’s remarks replicated Guaidó’s message. He argued that Maduro’s reelection was illegal, and therefore Venezuela only has one constitutional president. He also outlined his government’s agenda of ending Maduro’s usurpation, establishing a transitional government and calling for free and fair elections. Vecchio underscored the need for humanitarian aid and claimed that no sanction could be as detrimental to the Venezuelan people as keeping Maduro in power. To conclude, he referenced Guaidó’s push to protect Venezuelan assets, explaining how his government is working towards an orderly and legal transfer of control over Venezuela’s resources.

Luis Vicente León was asked about recent polls and whether he could provide insight on Guaidó’s popularity. He cited a Datanalisis poll from December 2018 in which 15 to 20 percent of Venezuelans supported Maduro and 17 percent approved of the National Assembly’s role. He pointed to the fact that the most recognizable opposition figures at the time were polling between 20 and 25 percent. León also suggested that Guaidó’s recent popularity and his success in mobilizing people could have arisen from being perceived as an outsider within the opposition. He also pondered the power dynamic in Venezuela and the role the armed forces played in propping up Maduro. He argued that to achieve a transition, the opposition and its allies need to increase the cost of maintaining the status quo through multilateral sanctions and reduce the cost of exit for the military, which he argued could be achieved through the amnesty law and negotiations with the military.

Professor Michael Penfold stressed the importance of January 10 (the day Maduro’s term expired) as the catalyst for Juan Guaidó’s political movement, which he labeled as “irreversible.” He argued that Maduro had underestimated the potential response to his swearing-in and overestimated his ability to deal with the fallout. He also explained how Maduro has failed to mobilize Chavismo and his support coalition, which he attributed to Venezuela’s ongoing social and economic crises. He stressed the importance of the opposition’s demand for change and suggested that the military’s corporatist behavior could lead them to leave Maduro and back Guaidó. He compared the Venezuelan crisis to a plane looking to land, and offered two potential scenarios: one where it lands on a paved road, which represents a transition through negotiations with the military, or a second landing on an unpaved field, which represents a transition with no consensus that would be far more risky and dangerous. In closing, he discussed the uniqueness of this attempted transition, remarking that it is the first parliament-led democratic transition.

Risa Grais-Targow, Eurasia Group’s director for Latin America, highlighted the challenge in predicting the political outcome in Venezuela; however, she did express certainty about how difficult it will be for Maduro to work his way out of this crisis. She remarked that the latest round of sanctions imposed on the Maduro regime are more aggressive than ever, making it very difficult for PDVSA to find new markets for Venezuelan oil. If they do find new markets, it will probably be at steep discounts and with relatively higher transportation costs. She also commented that these sanctions pose the risk of Maduro’s allies abandoning him, to avoid the risk of also receiving sanctions. This scenario explains China’s current cautious stand. She also questioned whether Russia would be willing to go all-in to defend Maduro. Grais-Targow concluded by outlining the necessary conditions for a peaceful transition: amnesty, credible offers from Guaidó, and conditions for the military to flip sides.

The session concluded with a Q&A. One guest inquired whether Guaidó’s government has representation from all racial and societal groups. Penfold agreed that a government representative of Venezuelan society would be necessary as not to avoid the mistakes that led to the Bolivarian Revolution. Another guest inquired about the influence Cuba exerts over Maduro’s regime. León and Penfold acknowledged that Cuba advises Maduro on several matters, playing an influential role on the regime. Another audience member inquired about the necessary steps to rebuild the Venezuelan economy. Grais-Targow acknowledged the complexity of this task, especially with the heavily leveraged oil industry. Overall, participants agreed that while it will be difficult for Maduro to retain power through this crisis, the opposition will need to work with the military and Chavismo to achieve an irreversible exit transition toward democracy.

Watch the recording of this event here