How Not to Do Regime Change in Venezuela

25 July 2019

There is no obvious “right” answer to Venezuela’s current crisis; there are however many wrong ones. Among the most assertive responses is the current domestically-led and US-backed effort to oust Venezuela’s sitting President Nicolás Maduro and install self-proclaimed “interim-president” Juan Guaidó. The only problem so far: attempts at regime change appear unlikely to succeed, let alone address the present turmoil.


Such crises are hardly new to the South American nation, though of course the present scale certainly is. A famously petroleum-rich nation, Venezuela went through a checkered twentieth century where an oil-dependent economy generated familiar tales of boom, bust, repeat. Current woes, however, began in earnest around 2012, when a downturn in global oil prices was swiftly followed by the death of Hugo Chávez, enigmatic leader of the Bolivarian Revolution. Needless to say, if the revolution depended on two things, they were oil and Chávez.


Since 2012 a protracted slump in petroleum markets, economic recession, one of the worst case of hyperinflation in modern history, tightening international sanctions and widespread political unrest have driven an estimated 4 million to flee Venezuela. Little wonder the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said the crisis is unlike anything ever seen in Latin America.


First the upper and middle classes left. Largely foreign educated, professionally trained, and bitterly opposed to Chávez, from 2003 onwards these initial waves of migrants went largely unnoticed. But by 2015 what was once a trickle became a flood. Those leaving Venezuela now are more likely come from the working classes, many of whom walk for hours a day, some weeks on end. A startling change of fate for a country characterized until recently for its net in-migration.


All things considered, however, it appears Maduro will weather the crisis at home and the exodus abroad. In many respects the secret to his survival recalls the advice that Roman Emperor Septimius Severus supposedly imparted to his sons upon his deathbed to secure a smooth succession: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, scorn everybody else.” Unlike Severus’s fratricidal sons, Maduro endures the crisis thanks to a largely united front from the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the deepening of already deep ties to the military and, well, scorning the opposition—if not quite everybody else.


The Story So Far


To be sure, for some time this year it looked like regime change might have been in the cards. On January 23rd, Guaidó, then a largely unknown political figure and only six days into his role as head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as the country’s “interim president.” With the Trump Administration leading the international chorus in favor of the opposition—including the European Union and the Lima Group, a collection of 13 Latin American nations and Canada—close to a quarter of the world’s leaders immediately recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s President.


Buoyed by the outpouring of support, Guaidó made a decisive move on April 30th. Accompanied by a handful of renegade soldiers and the escapee opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez—who evaded house arrest earlier the same day—from an overpass near the strategic La Carlotta airbase in eastern Caracas, Guaidó took to social media, calling on the military to overthrow Maduro and complete the final phase of “Operation Freedom.” Many heeded the call to arms; as key opposition figures and a large crowd of anti-government protesters converged near La Carlota, an overthrow appeared a distinct possibility.


But as so often is the case with Venezuela’s opposition, things soon fell apart. First, skirmishes broke out between Guaidó’s insurgents and loyalists inside La Carlota. Soldiers on the overpass then deserted the scene, later claiming they were “deceived” into joining the uprising. All the while government figures denounced the events as a coup, and large pro-Maduro crowds gathered to defend the presidential palace. Finally, with the writing on the wall, Lopez fled to the Spanish ambassador’s house seeking asylum, while twenty-five rebelling soldiers absconded to the Brazilian embassy.


As everything crumbled around him, Guaidó too disappeared, before resurfacing hours later in a video calling supporters to take to the streets the next day. Maduro, he claimed, “does not have the support of the armed forces.” But support of the armed forces is exactly what Maduro had. As events of April 30th unfolded, significantly, military leaders did nothing.


With the coup over before it began, efforts at regime change doubled-down on the international front, where the Trump administration started to flex its geopolitical muscles, increasing sanctions, and labelling Venezuela part of the hemisphere’s “Troika of Tyranny.” John Bolton even claimed key figures in Maduro’s government promised support for the uprising, only to back out at the eleventh hour. Needless to say, no evidence exists for such accusations. The intent nonetheless remained clear: the US would take the lead in attempts to remove Maduro.


Guaidó played his part in escalating international tension as well. “If the North Americans proposed a military intervention,” he coyly commented in one interview, “I would probably accept it.” Ever since Chávez first came to power in 1999, Washington has made no secret of its wish to return the country to its backyard, so to speak. But with Trump as Commander-in-Chief—flanked by hardline lieutenants Mike Pompeo, Elliot Abrams and John Bolton—US military intervention has become a more credible possibility. In fact, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser HR McMaster apparently even talked Trump down from approving the military option in August 2017.


Yet Venezuela’s leadership appears unlikely to bend under the weight of either Trump’s words or Guiadó’s actions. It’s worth remembering that Maduro and his allies have seen this story play out before, and in fact they have survived much worse. In April 2002 George W. Bush’s administration backed an internal coup against Chávez led by Pedro Carmona, President of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, and key leaders of the Armed Forces. Unlike Guaidó, Carmona actually made it inside Miraflores before declaring himself “interim president,” whisking Chávez off to a military prison. Carmona looked all but set to assume Venezuela’s presidency—that is, until massive popular protests converged on the Presidential Palace, sparking palace guards loyal to the government to retake control of the building, arrest many of the conspirators and secure the safe return of Chávez (The documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is a must-see on the 2002 coup attempt.).


With the coup in tatters, the following year, a cabal of international governments and business leaders backed an unsuccessful oil lockout. With his principal revenue stream cut off, the logic went, Chávez could not last long. If only for a shorter period, the oil strike brought Venezuela to its knees far more so than current sanctions have been able to do, but still Chávez and the revolution endured. Of course, Maduro of 2019 is not Chávez of 2002. Venezuela and its current leadership are undoubtedly in a much more precarious position. But it is important to note that the situation today is one Maduro and those around him have faced before.


Division, Loyalty, Antipathy


Maduro is likely not the only one to be experiencing déjà vu in recent weeks. Since Guaidó’s self-coronation, internecine conflicts have plagued the already notoriously fractious opposition. Pompeo himself has recently aired frustrations at the opposition’s reluctance to unite fully behind Guaidó. Courtesy of a leaked recording to the Washington Post, the Defense Secretary supposedly griped that “our conundrum, which is to keep the opposition united, has proven devilishly difficult…The moment Maduro leaves, everybody’s going to raise their hands and [say], ‘Take me, I’m the next president of Venezuela.’’’


While Guaidó is struggling to unite the opposition, Maduro has solidified his military concordat. Chávez famously hailed from military ranks, which ensured close spiritual ties between the armed forces and the Bolivarian Revolution, solidified after 2002, when military leaders were given key ministerial positions. Learning his lessons from this period, Maduro has entrenched these ties. Unrest has surfaced within military ranks, but so far, no large-scale uprisings nor significant defections have occurred. Courted by the current and interim presidents alike, the military are unquestionably the current power brokers, and they favor Maduro.


Needless to say, military backing is not the same as popular support. In fact, Maduro faces a crisis of public confidence and institutional legitimacy. Recent presidential elections saw abstention rates of over 54 percent, unheard of in a country accustomed to 80 percent voter turnout, as in 2013, when Maduro was first elected. Hampering turnout, large swathes of the opposition boycotted the most recent ballot, claiming electoral corruption. Certainly, claims of electoral illegitimacy gained traction when PSUV replaced the opposition-led National Assembly with a more favorable constituent one. Popular trust in the electoral process is certainly strained, but with little change to voting systems since December 2015, when the opposition gained control of National Assembly, the boycott—much like the opposition—suffers from its own inconsistencies.


Loss of legitimacy, then, cuts both ways. Writing for NACLA, sociologists Rebecca Hanson and Tim Gill put it best: “We must be careful not to conflate protest against Maduro with support for the opposition.” Lack of broad support is hardly surprising for someone less than one in five Venezuelans had heard of before he assumed the “interim presidency.” Neither do calls for military invasion or close association with far-right-backed deadly street protests do Guaidó many favors outside of his immediate base. According to one of Venezuela’s leading pollsters, “radical leaders [associated with Guaidó] have no more than 20 percent in opinion polls.”


Despite best efforts, Guaidó also cannot seem to shake perceptions of the opposition as the party of the elites or US lackeys. Days after assuming the “interim presidency,” US-educated Guaidó released his hopefully titled plan “The Venezuela to Come,” which stressed a return to the free market, privatization of the oil industry, and gutting social welfare. Barry Cannon can thus conclude that “the ‘Venezuela to come’ looks conspicuously like the pre-Chávez, unequal, elite-led Venezuela of old.” Making matters worse, two of Guaidó’s close aides embezzled well over $100,000 USD meant for humanitarian aid at the Colombian border. With US now openly financing Guaidó with funds originally slated for Central America—while at the same time delaying Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans, if not deporting them outright—he offers little to dissuade skeptics.


Guaidó enjoys the support of a significant base, but so does Maduro, albeit a diminished one. If elections are a plebiscite on Maduro, a highly partisan picture emerges. In 2015 the opposition won the National Assembly with 7,726,066 votes. In 2018, Maduro won reelection with 6,245,862. Polls reveal similar trends: one from last December found 30 percent of Venezuelans still trust the government, while another from this past June found 36 percent recognized Guaidó as president, with 41 percent supporting Maduro. These are slippery litmus tests at best, but recent polls and elections reinforce a notion of a bitterly divided country. When Guaidó promised “the largest [anti-government] march in history”—certainly big, but not historic, not even for Venezuela—Maduro too led a comparably large pro-government demonstration. In reality these marches represent little more than a continued tradition of protest and counter-protest. For many Venezuelans, the battle lines were drawn long ago, and large defections from one side to the other now highly unlikely.


‘A Fruitless, Heartless, Illegal and Failed Policy’


Thus, for many familiar with Venezuela’s recent history, news that efforts to remove Maduro are faltering likely comes as little surprise. With that in mind let us consider the efficacy and ethics of the most consequential action taken against Venezuela: the tightening of economic sanctions, which now go beyond specific regime figures.


The Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) recently released a study on current sanctions by director Mark Wesibrot and economist Jeffery Sachs. The authors found that an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans died between August 2017 and the end of 2018 due to sanctions, which as Weisbrot wrote, deprive “Venezuelans of lifesaving medicines, medical equipment, food, and other essential imports.” To put it in context, Venezuela imports two-thirds of its food and medicines, and despite contentious relations, the US is its main trade partner. Sanctions not only block access to necessities, but also prevent recovery from the twin scourges of hyperinflation and recession. Following fresh sanctions in January, oil production fell 36.4 percent, and the decline is expected to bottom out at 67 percent by year’s end. For a country with an export economy 95 percent dependent on oil revenues, the consequences are devastating, and not just for Maduro.


Venezuela’s economic and social outlook was bleak well before the Trump Administration’s sanctions. Collapsing oil production, widespread mismanagement and entrenched venality first under Chávez and then Maduro governments have meant that Venezuelans not only face hyperinflation and economic recession, but homicide rates of 53.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, second only to Honduras, 26 percent of which supposedly come at the hands of security forces.


But the legacies of failed policies by successive Venezuelan governments is a sorry defense for current sanctions. As Sachs puts it, “deliberately aiming to wreck Venezuela’s economy and thereby lead to regime change… [is] a fruitless, heartless, illegal, and failed policy, causing grave harm.” Even the Financial Times, hardly an apologist for Maduro, decried the morality of present sanctions regime. By coup or otherwise, Maduro looks unlikely to leave, especially considering that Russia and China offer economic lifeline through loans and humanitarian aid. For Weisbrot and Sachs, sanctions are a “collective punishment of the civilian population as described in both the Geneva and Hague international conventions.”


Unsurprisingly, sanctions are not winning hearts and minds. In January, the pollster group Hinterlaces found that eight out of ten Venezuelans oppose international intervention, with 81 percent opposed to sanctions and 86 percent opposed to military intervention. The US and Guaidó also appear increasingly in the minority, with international pressure turning to peace talks as a way out of the deadlock. In a rare joint statement last month, Russia and China called on all parties “to aid a peaceful solution of the country’s issues by means of inclusive political dialogue and to stand against a military intervention in Venezuela.” In an about-face, the Lima Group, which initially backed Guaidó, issued calls in May for “peaceful” and “democratic” solutions, as have many others.


All Stick, No Carrot


Sanctions are generally only justifiable and effective when they play the role of the stick to the proverbial carrot, which is unequivocally not the case for Venezuela. As Richard Nixon did to Chile in the 1970s, the US explicitly plans to cause economic suffering in order to cower Venezuelans into mass revolt, with little regard for exacerbating the humanitarian crisis—quite the reverse, the plan is to entrench it. Kurt Tidd, former Commander of the United States Southern Command, admitted as much in two classified documents entitled “Venezuela Freedom-2 Operation” and “Plan to Overthrow Venezuelan Dictatorship ‘Masterstroke.’” With a coup or military defection unlikely, in Tidd’s own words, the aim is to “[encourage] popular dissatisfaction by increasing scarcity and rise in price of foodstuffs, medicine and other essential goods for the inhabitants.” Quite literally, “making more harrowing and painful the scarcities of the main basic merchandise.”


Currently Maduro and the military have been offered nothing they could do to end the sanctions regime, and so Venezuelans pay the price for the callous policy. Vice President Mike Pence recently tweeted “Nicholas Maduro must go,” while a State Department communiqué read, “[T]he only thing to negotiate with Nicolas Maduro is the conditions of his departure.” US treatment of Lieutenant Alejandro Andrade, once Chávez’s Treasury Secretary, no doubt gives military leaders pause for thought, too. After defecting to the US as a witness, Andrade was sentenced to ten years imprisonment on corruption charges. And after years of bitter conflict the Venezuelan opposition is even more vociferous than US officials in offering no quarter.


If—and that is a big if—sanctions are to be used legitimately, they must bring Maduro, military leaders, and the opposition to the negotiating table. Such talks first began some years ago, but the opposition walked out after receiving news of Trump’s election. In late May of this year, representatives from both parties agreed to restart talks in Oslo, but initial talks “ended without an agreement,” according to the opposition. In a statement Guaidó underlined that any negotiations must include the ousting of Maduro, formation of a transitional government, and fresh presidential elections—the exact same terms he had sought in his failed coup. Obviously, the Venezuelan government rejected these demands outright.


Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political risk consultant, has written that:


Any political transition in Venezuela must therefore include a power-sharing agreement that ensures Chavistas have a role in the country’s future… These kinds of agreements would offer incentives to government actors to come to the negotiating table in the first place and guarantee their security, their political participation, and even their access to economic resources.


Short of US military invasion, if Guaidó wants to be more than Venezuela’s “interim president,” he will have to work from the negotiating table, not the streets. The real question is whether after two decades of bitter divisions, a solution can be reached through dialogue, and whether Guaidó is willing to talk.


There is some cause for hope, however. In a somewhat dramatic reversal, going against many of his allies, Guiadó supported a return to talks last week in Barbados—though as with anything in Venezuela, this is provisional. It would seem to be a popular strategy among Venezuelans at least, one recent poll registered 63 percent support for a negotiated settlement to remove Maduro from office. If this could be achieved, perhaps Guaidó and associates should go, too. It may be that a negotiated fresh start is ultimately what Venezuela needs.


Photo Credit: Alex Cabello Leiva, Marcha de protesta contra Maduro, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


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