Venezuela: analysis and crisis scenario

On 30 April 2019, opposition leader and self-proclaimed President of Venezuela Juan Guaidó released a video calling on the population and the army to oust socialist leader Nicolas Maduro.

Guaidó, surrounded by at least 100 soldiers loyal to him, appeared alongside Leopoldo López, a leading opposition member who had just been freed from house arrest by soldiers close to Guaidó. Later, Guaidò, Lopez and the soldiers headed towards the La Carlota air base in Caracas, with their supporters gathered nearby. The reaction of the military loyal to Maduro caused dozens of wounded. However, the situation did not escalate into large-scale riots and clashes.

Guaidó reappeared on 1 May in a demonstration in Caracas, again calling on the Venezuelan people and military to join his cause, while López found refuge in the Spanish embassy in the Venezuelan capital. On the same day, still in Caracas, a demonstration was held on the initiative of Maduro, who said that Guaidó’s attempted coup had failed.

The incident has caused a dispute between the United States and Russia, which support Guaidó and Maduro, respectively. The words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called for a democratic transition resulting in free elections and stated that Maduro was planning to flee to Cuba, were followed by those of Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, who warned Washington not to meddle in the internal affairs of Venezuela, threatening serious repercussions.

Meanwhile, medium-intensity protests have continued throughout the country, resulting in 96 wounded and 4 dead, including 2 in Aragua state.

OVERVIEW

Venezuela is experiencing a serious long-standing socioeconomic and political crisis, which has escalated further starting on 23 January 2019, when opposition leader Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself the country’s interim president during a demonstration against President and socialist leader Nicolas Maduro (on the day that commemorates the end of the dictatorship in 1958); Maduro has been in office since 2013 as the successor of Hugo Chavez, an advocate of the Bolivarian revolution, characterised by a socialist-style economic model and aversion towards the United States. After having remained unknown to most, Guaidó rose to prominence on 5 January 2019, when he was appointed President of the National Assembly, the democratically elected legislative body controlled by the opposition and divested by Maduro in 2017 through the creation of an illegitimate Constituent Assembly that has given itself the power to legislate.

Guaidó has explained his self-proclamation by referring to three articles of the Venezuelan constitution, and in particular to article 233, which says that, if there is no legitimately elected successor at the end of a presidential term, presidential powers are transferred to the National Assembly until new free and democratic elections are called. According to the opposition, Maduro’s presidential term expired naturally on 10 January 2019, as the socialist leader’s victory in the last 20 May 2018 presidential election is to be considered invalid due to serious irregularities and electoral fraud. Guaidó has been recognised as the legitimate president of Venezuela by more than 50 states, including most of the European and Latin American democracies and the United States, with which Maduro has decided to break off diplomatic relations.

Juan Guaido in Caracas. Source: Fernando Llano/AP

For his part, Maduro is supported by a smaller number of countries, which however include giants like China and Russia. Moscow’s intention to support the socialist leader was made clear in March 2019, when two Russian military aircraft carrying about 100 military staff and diplomatic officials arrived at Maiquetia airport in Caracas as part of the agreements in force between the two countries. Besides, Russia has so far supplied Caracas with heavy weapons and missile and anti-aircraft systems, including S-300VM (Antey-2500) long-range interceptors, shorter-range BuK-M2 and S-125 Pechora-2M anti-aircraft missiles, as well as Smerch long-range missiles and shoulder-launched Igla-S anti-aircraft missiles, with a view to helping the country defend itself in the event of an attack by US-led military forces. In addition to ideological and geopolitical motivations, Russia and China are interested in Venezuela because both countries want to safeguard the investments made in the past few years, particularly in the mining and oil sectors (in December 2018, for example, Moscow and Caracas signed a series of mining and oil agreements, worth over six billion dollars altogether).

Being aware of being supported by the Constituent Assembly and the Supreme Court – the major judicial body that has in the past few years been gradually subjugated by the government – and knowing that cracking down on Guaidó could cause the crisis to further escalate, Maduro mostly opted to undermine Guaidó’s judicial position before the 30th April events; specifically, Maduro dismissed the young opposition leader as President of the National Assembly and deprived him of parliamentary immunity, also in anticipation of a potential arrest of Guaidó. By contrast, in the months following self-proclamation, Guaidó has failed to capitalise on international support and win solidarity from the most disadvantaged communities and, above all, of the military (which explains the striking action of 30 April alongside army defectors), although such failure is mostly due to factors external to Guaidó.

ASSESSMENT

The role of the Military

There is currently little chance that the military will give up on Maduro to take sides with the opposition leader. The highest-ranking officials would not accept to lose the power acquired in the past few years within the country’s economic system, and in particular within the state-owned oil company and other strategic national companies, as well as in the food distribution chain. Moreover, though Guaidó does not rule out amnesty for the military members collaborating to dismiss Maduro, the armed forces – and especially the highest-ranking officials – are more and more aware of the risk that proceedings may be launched against them for human rights violations or other crimes, as happened in many other Latin American countries in the past.

Nor does it seem likely that the 30 April event could cause the low or medium military ranks to “collapse”, as most of them are still loyal to Maduro, or, more precisely, to charismatic Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López. However, we must bear in mind that the loyalty of the lower-ranking military personnel is not just a matter of political faith, but is also due to fears of retaliation against their family members.

The socialist entourage is well aware of its strong influence on most security force members. However, Maduro also knows that cases of insubordination such as the ones of 30 April or early January 2019 (when 27 soldiers occupied a barracks north of Caracas and posted a video online calling for popular uprisings against the socialist regime) could happen again; this means that it is very likely that military personnel will be subject to stricter monitoring and control, also through reinforced intelligence activity with the help of Cuban officials (whose number could even increase).

A potential disconnect between the army and the socialist regime could still occur if the government were to use pro-government militias (the “colectivos”) to forcibly repress any protests by the residents of the poor neighborhoods in western Caracas (traditionally attached to Chavez), where the first signs of discontent are beginning to emerge. Especially the lower-ranking military personnel would indeed not tolerate oppression against disadvantaged communities, thus withdrawing support from Maduro en masse and for good. The poorest communities traditionally loyal to the regime could stage large-scale protests if the economic situation were to further deteriorate; popular uprisings could also be urged by Guaidó himself, who, however, does not seem to be able to massively mobilise the poorest. A test bench will be the permanent mobilisation called by the young opposition leader for the coming weeks.

The role of the United States

A leading role in the Venezuelan crisis is played by the United States. Despite the statements and discourse of leading US government members about a potential military intervention in Venezuela, there is little chance that a military operation is actually launched. In addition to conflicting with the isolationist policy recently advocated by the Trump administration – which has decided to withdraw troops from the Middle East – a potential military expedition would be costly, not to mention the risk of a huge flow of refugees from Venezuela to the US (this would turn up the noses of pro-Trump conservative base voters) and the risk that the never-dormant anti-imperialist sentiment be rekindled in many Latin American countries (the origin of anti-imperialism dates back to the nineteenth century, with the introduction of the “Monroe Doctrine”, under which the United States called Latin America its “backyard”).

Any potential US plans of military intervention would be opposed by Colombia and Brazil (countries that border Venezuela and are therefore strategic). Both countries are to the forefront against the socialist government of Maduro, who has been defined by the Brazilian and Colombian presidents as an illegitimate leader; however, there are a few reasons why both Colombia and Brazil will unlikely change their position in regard to a US military operation, namely: risks of a potential cooling of relations with China – an ally and supporter of Maduro, but also strategic to the economies of Colombia and Brazil; fears of an uncontrollable flow of refugees from Venezuela (for example, clashes between Venezuelan refugees and the local population have recently occurred in the northern Brazilian state of Roraima, causing the border between the two countries to be closed); and, in the case of Colombia alone, the risk of new attacks by the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Colombian Marxist terrorist group that is closely linked to President Maduro. Lastly, we should bear in mind that Brazil is a jealous guardian of Amazonia; so, despite the joint military exercises between the US and the Brazilian armies launched in 2017 under the presidency of Michel Temer right inside Amazonia and the convergence of views between US President Donald Trump and newly elected Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Brasilia would unlikely allow Washington to use Amazonia as a base for military operations against Venezuela.

ELN presence in Venezuela. Source: Insight Crime

A further impediment to a possible US military intervention is the presence of China and Russia within the United Nations Security Council, where both countries have already expressed their opposition to a resolution submitted by the United States, Great Britain and France to prompt free elections in Venezuela. In light of the above, there is virtually no chance of a UN-backed military operation, which would require unanimity within the Security Council. However, we should note that the United States has intervened militarily in many countries in the past, even without endorsement by the United Nations.

OUTLOOK

In the short term, there is a very low probability that we would see a foreign military intervention causing a regime change, and there is a medium-low probability that any such intervention will result in a clash between the military factions supporting the two opposing political fronts. In contrast, it is very likely that the socialist regime will remain in power, even though we cannot rule out that Nicolas Maduro may leave the political stage.

In the medium term, the socialist regime’s ability to retain power will depend on the support of the military and Russia. The military could no longer show support if popular uprisings were to significantly increase, such as to lead to a substantial rise in the risk of violence. Such a scenario could be conducive to an agreement between Russia and the United States resulting in a peaceful power transition in Venezuela whilst safeguarding Moscow’s economic and geopolitical interests.