What’s Next For Venezuela?
With the apparent failure of the coup attempt in Venezuela, what happens next?
In light of the apparent failure of this week’s attempted coup in Venezuela, Michael Shifter and Bruno Binetti wonder what’s next for the beleaguered South American country:
The military is the main power player in Venezuela. It is a highly secretive institution and though rumors about plots, divisions among cadres and imminent insurrections have been rampant, few have actually materialized. Over all, the failed uprising proved that the armed forces remain disciplined, and generals still seem to be in command of their troops. They also manage most government agencies and profit from whatever is left of Venezuela’s dire economy, including the oil industry, currency exchange, smuggling and the drug trade.
Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Maduro appear to be locked in an epic battle for the support of the armed forces, but the situation is more complicated than that. To be sure, the armed forces will have to decide whether it is time for Mr. Maduro to go and, if so, negotiate the terms of his departure. But a government absent Mr. Maduro does not necessarily mean an embrace of Mr. Guaidó or a shift to democratic rule.
Instead Venezuela could face either a relatively long transition under military rule, lasting until the armed forces are convinced that a return to democracy will not jeopardize their power and privileges, or a hybrid military-civilian regime in which Mr. Guaidó and other opposition leaders will share power with military leaders accused of serious crimes.
This prospect is undoubtedly discouraging. But once transitions begin, they tend to acquire a life of their own. There are signs that Mr. Guaidó and his team are displaying greater flexibility and pragmatism in dealing with current power dynamics. He has reportedly offered some military leaders to retain their current posts in a post-Maduro government, well beyond his initial offer of amnesty for military leaders. Moving in this direction could make an eventual transition to democracy more likely to succeed, but that is far from certain.
With regard to the role of the United States in all of this, especially in light of recent statements by National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Trump, the two authors advise caution and restraint:
Statements like these only erode the Venezuelan military’s confidence in United States officials and in the opposition. Framing this issue as a battle between Russia and the United States could distort policies critical to resolving the Venezuelan crisis. An armed intervention would only aggravate the suffering of the Venezuelan people and is widely rejected in Latin America.
More saber rattling would weaken the broad regional coalition that supports a return of democracy to Venezuela. And six decades of a failed trade embargo has shown that such pressure, though it may garner some votes and bring in campaign donations in South Florida, has little effect on the Cuban regime and serves only to diminish the United States’ standing in Latin America and elsewhere.
Venezuela’s stalemate will not last forever, but an immediate return to democracy is highly unlikely. The quicker the opposition and its international supporters adapt their strategies to this hard reality, the sooner the country can begin to find a way out of this unprecedented crisis.
The hardest part of the road ahead, obviously, would be convincing a sufficient segment of the Venezuelan military that their fortunes under a post-Maduro regime would be as good as they are now, if not better. The fact that putative opposition leader Juan Guaidó appears to recognize that fact and at least seems willing to guarantee to cooperative military leaders that they will be allowed to remain in place in a post-Maduro Venezuela and will not be prosecuted for any events that took place under his regime is at least a sign that he appears to recognize reality in that regard. Whether or not the military will be receptive to it is, of course, another question and depends largely on the extent to which Maduro himself is able to keep the domestic situation in the country under control. If the street protests continue or become more violent, for example, then the military could decide that he has lost control of the situation and that throwing their support behind Guaidó is the best chance they have for survival in the long term.
As for the United States, the authors’ advice is largely spot-on. As I’ve said before American intervention in the situation in Venezuela would be counterproductive and would likely only cause the military to rally around Maduro in the wake of outside interference in internal Venezuelan affairs. So far at least, the President seems not to be inclined to listen to the more hawkish advice of people like Bolton and Pompeo on this issue, but it’s unclear whether that will last. If it doesn’t then it could arguably be the case that the Trump Administration itself will end up guaranteeing that Maduro stays in power. That would be an unfortunate outcome for the people of Venezuela, who are experiencing poverty and deprivation in what should be one of the wealthiest countries in South America and who deserve a lot better than what they are getting right now from their government.