Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Who Has the Upper Hand in Venezuela Now?

File Photo: @jguaido via Twitter. File Photo: @jguaido via Twitter.

Thousands of Venezuelans, including a number of junior military leaders, took to the streets last week in clashes against pro-government forces following a call by opposition leader Juan Guaidó to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Reports say the uprising had been planned for a later date, but that Guaidó acted earlier in fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro had been preparing to step down and flee to Havana, but that Russia convinced him to stay, and U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose a “full and complete embargo” on Cuba if it did not immediately end its support of Maduro’s government. What happened April 30, and who was strengthened or weakened as a result? Are the two sides closer to a negotiated transition, or is armed conflict imminent? Have the events changed the dynamics of international support, and what are the implications of Trump’s threats to Cuba?

Steve Ellner, associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives and former professor of economic history and political science at Universidad Oriente in Venezuela: “The spin that the Venezuelan opposition and the Trump administration have put on the events of April 30 are designed to save face. Opposition leaders deny April 30 constituted a coup attempt and instead claim it was part of an ongoing process that achieved at least one objective: liberating Leopoldo López from house arrest. By alleging that Maduro was about to flee the country and that Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López had virtually defected, the Trump administration appeared to be attempting to demonstrate that, far from being a half-baked scheme, the April 30 action almost succeeded. However, regime change efforts of this type, like the four-month protests of 2014 and 2017, create great expectations among the anti-Maduro rank and file, which then turn into a sense of resignation, while the opposition ends up losing its mobilization capacity. Juan Guaidó’s call last week for Maduro’s overthrow was the third of its kind in just over three months (the others having occurred on Jan. 23 and Feb. 23). In each case, people were led to believe that Maduro was on the verge of being ousted. The end result is a loss of credibility. Shortly after April 30, Carlos Raúl Hernández—a veteran political analyst and activist associated with Acción Democrática—voiced the belief of many in the opposition when he told Le Figaro that Juan Guaidó may be charismatic but lacks political ability. Guaidó’s failures may strengthen the hands of opposition parties that have been ambivalent about his schemes and are more open to negotiations with the government. While the demand for new elections represents a major hurdle in any negotiation process, proposals to overcome the pressing problems of hyperinflation, corruption and insecurity are not necessarily specific to any particular ideology. Surveys indicate that these problems, and not regime change, are foremost on the minds of most Venezuelans.”

Raúl Stolk, chief executive officer at Caracas Chronicles: “This is yet another example of the fragmentation of the regime. However, its greatest weakness is also its greatest strength. We have some sources that confirm the involvement of high-ranking Chavistas, such as General Padrino López, to have been engaged in these conversations to topple Maduro, but this doesn’t mean it was a done deal. Venezuelan regime stakeholders are divided and subject to close surveillance. It is very hard for them to form a bloc that is strong enough to make an important shift that will effect change. Also, there’s a long history of failed negotiations with Chavismo; they tend to drag conversations eternally and execute little action—maybe some of these players never had the intention of betraying Maduro in the first place. There are a hundred things that may have gone wrong, but we don’t think the involvement of Leopoldo López in the plot had anything to do with it failing. This is a convenient narrative for most stakeholders. We still believe Maduro comes out with the most damage, but we can expect extreme measures to show loyalty from high-ranking Chavistas in the coming days.”

Kevin Ivers, Latin America expert and vice president at DCI group: “The strategy to attack the legitimacy of Nicolás Maduro’s government after his rigged re-election last year was the right one. It yielded important results, most clearly in how Juan Guaidó gained international recognition for his legitimate government. It was inevitable that Guaidó would make a move such as the one on April 30 and that the conditions would probably never be ideal. But those who have followed these events minute by minute, instead of looking at the big picture, are missing the story. It’s not about Maduro being stronger on May 2 than he was on May 1; it’s about Maduro being much weaker now than he was on April 29. His regime lacks legitimacy, and his actions to hold on to power only further limit his ability to regain it. Worse yet, it is now clear that no investment can return to Venezuela, and therefore oil production will not rebound so long as he is in power. Cash was already scarce, and it will get worse going forward if the United States further tightens the noose with more targeted sanctions. There will be less cash for the men he has depended on to keep him in power, and they are being offered more incentives to oust him. Russia and China cannot afford to fully subsidize the country indefinitely. I don’t see a scenario in which Maduro gets stronger from here, only weaker.”

Betilde Muñoz-Pogossian, director of the Department of Social Inclusion at the Organization of American States: “Most of the world was expecting a democratic transition as they key outcome of the April 30 events. Although this was not achieved, the events put Venezuela in a different political moment, one in which the field was leveled a bit more in favor of the democratic forces of the country, led by interim President Guaidó. This is positive because more productive negotiations and sustainable outcomes are achieved when the ones who negotiate have relatively the same power and influence—and a negotiation will come. The events also revealed the international community’s stand on the Venezuelan situation, as well as the community of democracies’ willingness to avoid a military confrontation and actively promote a negotiated agreement. Whether this is possible is yet to be seen, as the deteriorating humanitarian conditions of the Venezuelan people are generating pressures on the countries of the region to get to a solution soon.”

Jennifer McCoy, senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Central European University in Budapest and professor of political science at Georgia State University: “Though high dissatisfaction among the military’s rank and file has been confirmed by defecting soldiers, the apparent unity of the upper command despite Guaidó’s three visible calls since January to abandon Maduro raises significant questions about the reasons for his apparent overconfidence. Is it a lack of sufficiently credible incentives and guarantees that criminally-compromised commanders will be protected if they abandon Maduro? Is it duplicity by the regime members doing the negotiating? Or is it competing pressures within Guaidó’s circle of domestic and international advisors leading to apparently premature moves? Maduro is weakened and should be shaken, unsure of whom to trust, but he is reacting initially with hardline repression. The opposition is putting on a brave face but is unable to mobilize an exhausted citizenry. Nevertheless, both sides should recognize that neither can vanquish the other, and concessions will have to be made to end the conflict. The reports that the opposition was willing to share power in an interim government are an encouraging sign of this recognition. The Maduro regime is still too much of a black box to discern such recognition. International actors will help prolong the conflict if they continue to give hope to their Venezuelan allies that they will be saved by outsiders—whether through military intervention by the United States, or financial or military support from Russia.”

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