Maduro’s Power in Venezuela Seems Stable, for Now
Despite the recognition by a wave of countries of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president, Maduro’s patronage of the military insulates him from the need to negotiate.
BOGOTÁ and CARACAS—When Juan Guaidó stood before tens of thousands of supporters in Caracas, constitution in hand, and took the oath declaring himself interim president, many Venezuelans thought that President Nicolás Maduro, widely regarded as a dictator, could finally be ousted from the presidential palace. Attendees at the rally could barely contain their joy as the wiry freshman leader of Venezuela’s once-toothless opposition spoke. They broke down in tears and embraced loved ones, singing “Down with chains!” as the national anthem’s rousing lyrics go.
“Guaidó did what he had to do,” said Carlos Martínez, 41, who had come to watch the young leader speak.
Just moments later, the White House announced that the United States would recognize Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader, at least until free and fair elections could be held. This was followed by similar declarations from a dozen Latin American countries—with the notable exception of Mexico—as well as Canada. Over the course of the day, Venezuela’s reliable allies Russia, China, Cuba, Bolivia, and Turkey reiterated their backing for Maduro, but still the jubilant atmosphere in Caracas reached fever pitch.
That optimism, for now at least, seems premature.
The military—long the kingmaker of Venezuelan politics—did not defect en masse. These protests, the largest in at least two years and held in several onetime bastions of government supporters, were met with repression and did little to faze Maduro. On Wednesday night, he gave a speech to several thousand gathered supporters—a fraction of the turnout for the marches against him—with a rundown of his bellicose rhetorical hits. “We are defending the right to the very existence of our Bolivarian republic,” he said from the balcony of Miraflores, the opulent presidential palace. “Do you want a puppet government controlled by Washington?”
By Thursday morning, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López broke his silence after 24 hours of speculation over the military’s loyalty to Maduro. He and eight regional military commanders appeared on state television to denounce what they called a coup, confirming suspicions that, for now at least, Maduro’s grip on the military leadership holds firm.
In response to the U.S. recognition of Guaidó, Maduro has broken off diplomatic ties with Washington. The U.S. State Department has stated that he lacks the authority to do so. As tensions rise ahead of Sunday’s deadline to call back all U.S. diplomatic personnel, the countries across the region that also backed Guaidó face a difficult decision: Which president do Latin American countries back in practice?
“Is all of Latin America going to expel their Venezuelan diplomats and replace them with ones named by Guaidó, diplomats who have no actual ability to do things like grant visas or advance commercial interests from Caracas? What does this mean for consular and diplomatic affairs, let alone commercial ties?” said Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “I can’t see support for a parallel government lasting for very long before countries start to yield to their very real interest in maintaining communication with the de facto authority, meaning Maduro.”
Maduro gained prominence as a fiercely loyal lieutenant to his late predecessor Hugo Chávez, whose Bolivarian brand of socialism endeared him to leftists around the world. When his charismatic mentor died of cancer in 2013, Maduro assumed power and narrowly won an election shortly after. Then, the economy—little more than a state–run oil business—began to tank.
Now, with dwindling public support, he has grown increasingly authoritarian. He has dispatched the national guard to stamp out protests and in 2017 sidelined the democratically elected but opposition-held National Assembly, replacing it with a pliant Constituent Assembly. He has also stacked the supreme court. His electoral victory last May was widely labeled a sham, and when he began his second term in early January, Guaidó challenged his rule, triggering the current escalation of the crisis.
However, Maduro keeps the loyalty of the armed forces by granting leaders stakes in PDVSA, the state-run oil company, and turning a blind eye to their involvement in illegal activities, including drug trafficking and gold mining. That quid pro quo is bolstered by an anti-American ideology, something U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement on Wednesday inadvertently fueled.
“These are guys that fought with Chávez, that believe in their hearts that the U.S. is the enemy,” said Eva Golinger, the author of Confidante of ‘Tyrants’ and a former defender of Chávez.
The lower ranks are not bought off like their bosses and would likely be more willing to see Maduro go. They suffer the same crisis as the average Venezuelan. Guaidó, in a bid to mobilize the military, will canvas military bases this Sunday, offering amnesty to troops who switch sides.
A negotiated solution to the crisis now looks unlikely. Maduro has previously used the prospect of talks to buy time and lock up opponents, and when he called for dialogue at a press conference on Friday, many observers felt he was singing the same tune. Guaidó’s coalition still lacks the vital support of the military. Mexico and Uruguay have offered to broker talks in good faith, though mistrust exists on both sides, and ultimately Maduro has little to gain and everything to lose from stepping aside.
“Looking around at most authoritarian breakdowns over the last few decades, one doesn’t see all that many negotiated transitions—and most of them are in cases of military dictatorship or institutionalized party rule,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University and co-author of How Democracies Die. “In weakly institutionalized cases, autocrats and their inner circle know they have little to gain and much to lose from a transition, so they have little incentive to negotiate.”
“I would not hold my breath waiting for a negotiated transition in Venezuela unless—and this is quite possible—the military steps in, pushes Maduro aside, and negotiates,” Levitsky said. “The army could negotiate a transition. Maduro is very unlikely to do so.”
Aside from Wednesday’s developments, the oil-rich nation’s woes show little sign of abating.
Caught in the middle of the geopolitical wrangling are 32 million Venezuelans who are enduring an intractable crisis. Hyperinflation is predicted to reach 10 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, drawing comparisons to Germany’s Weimar Republic. Basic food staples and medicines are in scarce supply and prohibitively expensive when they are available. Water and power outages are a daily reality. More than 3 million Venezuelans have already left, according to the United Nations refugee agency, worrying South American neighbors ill-equipped to receive more refugees.
“I suppose conditions could still get worse for the average Venezuelan, but they are so, so bad right now,” said Katrina Burgess, an associate professor of political economy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. “My fear is that this is just another outburst with an opposition leader who has support inside and outside of Venezuela, but Maduro just lets it play out, and it goes poof, with some repression thrown in, and we’re back to where we started.”
Joe Parkin Daniels is a freelance journalist based in Bogotá, Colombia. Twitter: @joeparkdan