Venezuela at Another Crossroads

Thousands of protestors in the streets. A self-proclaimed president. An uncertain political future. Venezuela has been here before.

In 2002, dissident military officers with the support of private media, opposition politicians, and the Metropolitan Police removed Hugo Chávez from office for 48 hours while Pedro Carmona, the President of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, declared himself interim president. Yet, aside from the George W. Bush administration, the hemisphere roundly condemned these efforts.

On January 23 – on the anniversary of the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, General Marcos Pérez Jiménez – Juan Guaidó, like Carmona almost 17 years ago, declared the government of Nicolás Maduro illegitimate and himself as interim president. Guaidó is the current president of the National Assembly, itself a contested political institution in the country.

Much has changed, though, since the days of the April 2002 coup, when, in response, the Venezuelan poor famously came “down from the barrios” to defend President Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution. Indeed, at that time, there was little doubt that Chávez commanded the support of the Venezuelan populace. And while the opposition thought they had outwitted their progressive president, they were forced to return Chávez to the Miraflores Palace lest the country potentially descend into civil war.

Nearly two decades later, Venezuelan President Maduro faces a far different scenario.

Different Scenario Today

Protests against Maduro and confrontations with police have been documented throughout many working-class neighborhoods, including Catia, which has been a Chavista stronghold for almost two decades, in addition to sectors like La Vega, El Valle, Petare, and San Agustín. Marches against Maduro have vastly outnumbered those in support of him. Some sources have even said that participants at Chavista events are prohibited from taking pictures and videos due to low turnout.

What’s more, President Maduro has encountered plummeting approval ratings. In a recent poll, for example, 63 per cent of respondents said that they would support a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro from office. Maduro has also faced continual accusations that his elections have been marred by fraud. Though there is little evidence that ballot boxes have been explicitly stuffed, critics largely point to the unfair electoral conditions that have barred leading opposition candidates from running and have tilted the playing field in favor of Maduro. In response, the opposition bloc led a large-scale boycott of the most recent presidential election, and declined to support Henri Falcón, who was running against Maduro. Even so, the opposition won recent legislative elections in 2015 and maintain a majority within the internationally recognized, but domestically isolated, National Assembly.

International support for Guaidó also looks very different than support for Carmona after the 2002 coup attempt. Trump announced on January 23rd that the U.S. government recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s president. But this time other state leaders, including Canada and most Latin American countries – including Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, a former ally of the Venezuelan government – have followed suit.

Where is Venezuela Headed?

With Trump at the helm of the U.S. and Maduro in a more desperate situation than ever, there is hardly an improbable situation.

U.S. state leaders are currently urging Maduro to step down from the presidency. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, has called on Maduro “to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people.” And there are reports that U.S. leaders are offering a safe departure for Maduro should he agree to quickly step down.

If Maduro’s public address on Wednesday is any indication, though, he isn’t planning to relinquish control over the Venezuelan presidency or quietly exit the country any time soon. Instead, Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours, and he has promised to combat U.S. imperialism. There are seemingly few incentives for Maduro and his allies to step down. Several countries have already enacted travel restrictions and leveled financial sanctions against high-ranking government members, including the United States, Panama, and Switzerland. What is more, should the opposition manage to oust Maduro anytime soon, whatever that will look like, they could pursue criminal charges against Maduro and his allies. All together, the exit costs appear high, inducing the government to weather the crisis as long as possible.

While cooler heads had previously called for renewed negotiations between the government and opposition, it is not entirely clear whether negotiations even remain an option at this point. In the wake of Guaidó’s recognition as Venezuela’s interim president, Uruguay and Mexico have offered to help the two sides negotiate a “peaceful and democratic solution” to the crisis. With much of the hemisphere explicitly calling for Maduro to step down, though, it’s possible that the opposition will maintain a similar position, rejecting any other solution besides Maduro’s exit.

It is not inconceivable that sustained protests could eventually lead to Maduro resigning. Of course, it is unclear who could consolidate enough support to step into Maduro’s place as president were he willing to resign and be replaced by someone in his own party. As was the case when Chávez died, there is a paucity of Chavista politicians that garner widespread support. Previous mobilizations have not led to productive negotiations or whispers of a resignation; instead, over the past few years they have been met with increasing repression. Beginning the night of January 22, the FAES, the special tactical forces of the National Police, and colectivo groups have been documented on numerous occasions repressing demonstrators. Within 24 hours of Guaidó’s announcement, 15 people had already been killed. And, in contrast to protests in 2014, where confrontations between state security forces and demonstrators took place in middle and upper-class neighborhoods like Altamira and El Cafetal, clashes have taken place in sectors such as Catia and La Cotiza.

Like in 2002, the police could participate in a coup attempt. But it is unlikely that the National Police, the largest police force in the country, would turn against the government in the same way the Metropolitan Police did that April.

A military coup also cannot be ruled out, and there is no doubt that if the military turned on Maduro, they would easily terminate his presidency. Though the Minister of Defense, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, is backing Maduro, in December the Washington Post reported that he suggested to Maduro that he step down. On January 21, as well, a group of almost 30 National Guard members called for a coup, and there have been reports of other small scale defections during protests. Nevertheless, Maduro has spent the past few years building support within the military. Like government members, it seems likely that high-ranking military members also fear prosecution from an opposition-led government, as many of them also remain subject to travel restrictions and financial sanctions from a number of countries throughout the world.

Elephant in the Room

The largest elephant in the room is, of course, the prospect of U.S. military intervention. With few exceptions, U.S. state leaders have already voiced their unconditional support for the opposition and its new leader, which pushed Maduro to announce that Venezuela would break ties with the United States and demand U.S. diplomats leave the country. Given that it no longer recognizes Maduro as president, though, the United States has stated that it now only maintains relations with Guaidó and the National Assembly, and that its diplomats will remain within the country.

In doing so, the United States is seemingly baiting Maduro into taking a short-sighted move that could potentially be used to justify U.S. intervention. Indeed, the last two U.S. interventions in the Americas designed to remove a government from power took place in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, and, in both instances, the United States largely justified its intervention with reference to the preservation of the safety of U.S. citizens in these two locations. As Trump has already voiced support for a U.S. invasion of Venezuela, this scenario is far from unlikely.

While U.S. leaders, including Trump, seem to think that a U.S. military invasion or Venezuelan military coup will seamlessly generate a thoroughly democratic transition, this is far from the only possibility. As historian Greg Grandin has argued in the case of Honduras, the U.S. enabled the consolidation of the coup of former President Manuel Zelaya, and, since this time, the Honduran reality has become less, not more democratic. Recent Honduran elections were characterized by serious irregularities, and rampant crime and corruption have continued to push citizens out of the country.

If Maduro treads lightly and deliberately seeks to keep U.S. forces outside Venezuela, the United States could still follow through with oil sanctions. A full-fledged ban on Venezuelan oil imports would undoubtedly further destroy the Venezuelan economy. The United States remains the number one importer of Venezuelan goods, including oil, and, unlike China, continues to pay in cash for its products. It’s possible that the Venezuelan economy might limp onwards in a way similar to Zimbabwe under Mugabe, leading to a scenario where the economy remains stagnant and hyperinflation continues. But, without those export earnings, it’s quite likely that the economic benefits currently being used to satiate high-ranking military members might dry up, rendering a military coup all the more likely, just as one slowly but eventually also came for Mugabe. Though not a military one, U.S. sanctions on oil would represent a significant intervention that would exacerbate the political and economic crisis, as well as the regional crisis of mass migration from Venezuela.

Finally, we must be careful not to conflate protests against Maduro with support for the opposition, a sleight of hand that the opposition has made before. Waning support of the poor and working-class for Maduro does not necessarily translate into acceptance of Guaidó. Many in the popular sectors remain skeptical of the opposition, with good reason.

While Guaidó has mentioned holding interim free elections, he has not noted any specifics about when this would happen or what elections would look like. As has long been a weakness within the opposition, they have not put forward a coherent plan far beyond getting Maduro out of office. The opposition toyed with the idea of converging parallel institutions, such as a Supreme Court in exile, but had advanced nothing over the last decade as monumental as its most recent attempt to hinder Maduro’s rule. Guaidó for his part says he will not attempt to run a parallel government.

Though they initially put forward candidates, the opposition eventually refused to participate in the most recent presidential elections. This is a mistake that the opposition has repeated over and over again. Though two of its top leaders, Leopoldo López and Henrique Capriles, were barred from running in the 2018 presidential elections, the opposition was crying foul as early as 2006, long before any outside accountability groups were calling elections into question. For some, their refusal to participate in an important democratic institution, albeit a flawed one, makes the opposition’s demand for democracy seem questionable at best, hypocritical at worst.

Considering that Leopoldo López – the radical face of the opposition – is one of Guaidó’s mentors, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that the opposition could take an undemocratic turn if they take power. Support for undemocratic means to remove first Chávez and now Maduro from office has been a source of conflict among opposition parties for years. This fracture within the opposition is important to keep in mind over the coming weeks.

If transition negotiations do take place, it is important that Chavistas participate in them and in subsequent elections. And opposition leaders must be committed to recognizing the results of future elections, even if these are not in their favor. Any hope for a peaceful resolution in Venezuela ultimately hinges on at least some level of agreement between the government and opposition. As the situation deteriorates and the stakes get higher, desperate actions could lead to widespread violence, or worse, a civil war. •

This article first published on the NACLA website.

Rebecca Hanson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Law and the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Florida. She has conducted research on politics, violence, and policing in Venezuela since 2009. She is currently working on a book manuscript analyzing the tension between civilian and militarized policing in Venezuela. Follow her tweets at @BeccaAnnice.

Tim Gill is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His research focuses on U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela, particularly U.S. democracy promotion programs. He is the author of the forthcoming edited volume The Future of U.S. Empire in the Americas: The Trump Administration and Beyond due out in December 2019, Routledge Press. Follow his tweets at @timgill924.