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Venezuela power struggle: a play for time ... and military's support

Why We Wrote This

As President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó draw on a global power struggle between authoritarian and democratic forces, some say that could imperil a peaceful solution for Venezuela.

Fernando Llano/AP
Opposition National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó (r.), who has declared himself Venezuela’s interim president, greeted supporters as he left church in Caracas Jan. 27.

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The rise of opposition leader Juan Guaidó to self-declared interim president set the clock ticking in Venezuela’s power struggle. Leftist President Nicolas Maduro faces mounting domestic and international pressure. But an unusual convergence of factors could mean he finds a way to hold on, some analysts say. Having already recognized Mr. Guaidó’s claim to power, the US has taken the next step aimed at forcing Mr. Maduro out: applying oil sanctions in what appears to be a well-orchestrated hemispheric campaign. For now, use of military force is only a provocative hint. Russia, which has core interests, would like to see the US-led imbroglio go on. Who’ll come out on top? One key factor: whether or not Venezuela’s military continues to stand by Maduro. “Venezuela is in the middle of an unprecedented face-off between the Western democracies and their Latin American allies and the non-democrats rallying to Maduro,” says Eric Farnsworth, a leading Latin America expert in Washington. If Russia and China and other “authoritarian countries push their engagement in ways that offset the US-led pressure,” he adds, “it could give Maduro the time he needs to consolidate his hold on power.”

Once Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s legitimate president last week, he set a clock ticking.

The longer Venezuela’s embattled leftist President Nicolás Maduro is able to defy the clock and retain his office, regional experts say, the better his chances of fending off this latest challenge and clinging to power.

Everyone involved in the crisis appears to recognize this.

Mr. Guaidó, who just a few weeks ago was not widely known even in his own country, knows time is of the essence and is calling for massive national demonstrations Wednesday, and especially Saturday, to keep building public pressure on Mr. Maduro to step down.

Maduro himself appears to understand the ticking clock, having taken steps to help him weather the storm: domestically to bolster his support within the military and internationally among his regime’s friends, like Russia and China.

And the United States is recognizing that it may be now or never to topple Maduro and avoid the long-term installation of another Cuba in the hemisphere. To address Venezuela’s steady slide into economic crisis and authoritarian rule, it is taking steps it had until now stopped short of.

On Monday the Trump administration announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, in an effort to cut off the flow of oil income that has kept Maduro’s government afloat. The US had already imposed sanctions on the top tier of the country’s civilian and military leadership – including Maduro – but had until now remained PDVSA’s top cash-paying customer.

Having already recognized Guaidó on Wednesday as Venezuela’s interim president, the US took the next big step with oil sanctions in what appears to be a well-orchestrated hemispheric campaign to force Maduro from office.

And just in case Maduro wasn’t getting the hint, President Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, appeared to resort to a bit of psy-op warfare Monday aimed at further rattling the beleaguered president and his entourage.

At the White House briefing with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announcing the oil sanctions, Mr. Bolton held a yellow legal pad with the words “5,000 troops to Colombia” aimed outward and clearly legible to the assembled press.

Colombia shares a long border with Venezuela and has joined with the US and other regional powers from Canada to Brazil and Argentina in recognizing Guaidó and demanding Maduro’s departure.

Democratic-authoritarian face-off

The mounting domestic and international pressure might be almost impossible for another embattled leader to withstand. But an unusual convergence of factors, starting with the developing tug-of-war over Venezuela between the US and other Western democracies and rising authoritarian powers led by Russia, could mean that Maduro finds a way to hold on, some analysts say.

“Things really do feel different this time after so many years of crisis, Maduro’s legitimacy is being challenged now like never before,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and a leading Latin America expert in Washington.

“But now Venezuela is in the middle of an unprecedented face-off between the Western democracies and their Latin American allies and the non-democrats rallying to Maduro,” Mr. Farnsworth says. If Russia and China and other “authoritarian countries push their engagement in ways that offset the US-led pressure,” he adds, “it could give Maduro the time he needs to consolidate his hold on power.”

/Susan Walsh/AP
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at which he announced sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company.

At an emergency United Nations Security Council session on Venezuela Saturday, the Western-authoritarian split was on full display. But the support for the Maduro regime from Security Council permanent members Russia and China could not help but “boost Maduro’s international legitimacy,” Farnsworth says.

Still, Farnsworth and others say it is doubtful either Russia or China will go to great lengths to prop up Maduro. China’s interest is largely in Venezuela’s oil, experts say, which Venezuela ships to China to pay down its large debt to Beijing.

Russia, on the other hand, “is much more interested in driving the US into some sort of imbroglio in Venezuela,” Farnsworth says, “which means the US will pay less attention to the places where Russia really does have core interests.”

Courting the military

Yet as important as the international context may be, it’s still going to be the power struggle on the ground – and above all whether or not the military continues to stand by Maduro – that determines Venezuela’s path forward, most experts say.

“The US is clearly ratcheting up the economic pressure with these [oil] sanctions, but I still see the military as the key,” says Brian Fonseca, director of the Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University in Miami. Indeed, turning the economic screws “is designed to further isolate Venezuela economically, compelling the military and others to turn on the regime,” he says.

But Professor Fonseca, an expert on Venezuela’s military, says the determining factor may not be so much the military’s top brass, which after many years of gifts and other corrupting influences seems beholden to Maduro, but the middle ranks.

“So far we haven’t seen much in the way of cracks in the military’s stand with Maduro,” he says, “but clearly everyone understands how the mid-ranking officers and the troops could make the difference here.” He notes that Maduro has kept a steady flow of videos on social media showing him rallying the troops on bases across the country.

At the same time, delegations supporting Guaidó are also showing up at military bases, imploring the ranks to switch allegiances.

“Regular people” have been approaching soldiers in the streets with pamphlets explaining why the military should remain neutral in the political power struggle. Some have pledged “amnesty” for military officers in a post-Maduro scenario. These actions underscore the wide-ranging understanding of the military’s key role, Farnsworth says.

“The military remains the ultimate arbiter of who’s going to be in control,” Farnsworth says. “Clearly what Maduro lacks in legitimacy he retains in his ability to use force, while for Guaidó it’s the reverse. In that equation,” he adds, “the key becomes the extent to which the military remains loyal to Maduro.”

Moreover, Fonseca says Maduro knows that Guaidó’s legitimacy has a certain shelf life – which is why he says Maduro will do everything he can to hold on to power for the coming weeks.

What the constitution stipulates

Guaidó’s legitimacy derives from the fact that as president of the National Assembly he was empowered by the Venezuelan constitution to declare himself interim president once the assembly determined Maduro’s second term, which began this month, was illegitimate.

But the constitution also stipulates that the interim president must set a new presidential election within the first 30 days of his mandate, Fonseca notes. “The longer this power struggle drags on, the harder it becomes for Guaidó to retain that legitimacy,” he adds, “and Maduro knows it.”

That helps explain why Guaidó has moved quickly to bolster his standing with the international community and particularly with the US, without whose recognition he likely would have become just another opposition flash in the pan. Guaidó has coordinated with the Trump administration on the oil sanctions, and has named a chargé d’affaires for Washington to replace the diplomats Maduro ordered home when he severed diplomatic ties.

Moreover, by calling for massive national demonstrations Saturday, Guaidó is linking his campaign to the international community. Saturday is also the deadline a group of European countries set for Maduro to either call new elections – or see key European powers join the US and recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

What worries some analysts is that the intensifying involvement of the international community in Venezuela and the developing tug-of-war between big-power factions will make it more difficult for Venezuelans to resolve the country’s crisis peacefully and by themselves.

“The two sides are being emboldened by outside forces to take increasingly provocative steps, and that’s leading to a brinksmanship that is the opposite of the dialogue that should be the only answer for resolving this crisis,” says Miguel Tinker-Salas, a Venezuelan historian and professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

Handbook for survival

In particular, Professor Tinker Salas says he worries that a now-or-never mindset in the Trump administration could lead the US to take extreme steps if Maduro appears to be holding onto power despite Guaidó’s gambit.

“Bolton has suggested in the past that the administration could be looking for some ‘incident’ to justify taking the step to military action, but I would hate to see some ‘incident’ created for a pretext to intervention,” he says. “US interventions in Latin America and elsewhere have been disastrous for the country involved and for the US, and there’s no reason to think it would be different here.”

Notwithstanding the note scrawled on Bolton’s legal pad, no one appears to be calling for military intervention at this point. (Asked to clarify Bolton’s note Tuesday, the White House simply said Mr. Trump has always said “All options are on the table,” a standard phrase presidents use in such contexts.)

But some analysts say that as Maduro fights for his survival, he is taking cues from Cuba and how it withstood US pressure for six decades. And certainly the prospect of “losing” Venezuela during its watch could motivate the Trump administration to take further action.

“If you look at the steps Maduro has taken over recent years to consolidate his hold on power – allowing mass emigration to release pressures, organizing a scarcity of resources to ensure popular loyalty, integrating the military into the economic system to keep it loyal, and of course relentlessly building up the Americans or ‘Yanquis’ as the Venezuelan people’s top enemy – you see it’s all out of Cuba’s handbook for survival,” Fonseca says.

“Maduro has benefited from that handbook so far,” he adds, “and he knows that the longer this goes on, the better the chances of the regime’s survival.”

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