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Latin America

Venezuela’s battle for the presidency: how long can Maduro hang on?

While international pressure is mounting daily, history suggests forecasts of Maduro’s prompt demise may be woefully exaggerated
28 Ene 2019 – 04:31 PM EST
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a military exercise in Valencia, Venezuela January 27, 2019. Crédito: Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

It’s not exactly unchartered waters, but not since 1994 has a government in this hemisphere found itself so isolated.

The de facto military government in Haiti, which ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide in a bloody coup in 1991, clung to power for three years despite an economic embargo that caused drastic shortages of food and gasoline. Prior to that, Panamanian strongman, General Manuel Noriega, also thumbed his nose at the international community despite an embargo that crippled the economy.

Elsewhere, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Omar Gadhafi also resisted for years under harsh economic sanctions. All four cases were only resolved by foreign military intervention.

In Haiti, President Bill Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to restore Aristide to power under the auspices of a United Nations-backed intervention. In Panama, President George H. Bush acted unilaterally in 1989, ordering an invasion force of 28,000 U.S. troops to oust Noriega.

Besides their eventual ouster, the lessons are clear: pariah regimes are, by their lawless nature, extremely hard to remove. Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions are no magic bullet. Cuba has survived a U.S. embargo for more than 50 years, while Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, is facing down international condemnation and U.S. sanctions for the second time in four decades.

This is especially the case with determined ideological foes who, like Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, enjoy a small but loyal and often well-armed following, and are prepared to use repressive tactics to subjugate the population.

So, forecasts of Maduro’s imminent demise may be wishful thinking. To be sure, he may have misjudged international reaction to his fraudulent re-election and swearing in for a new term on January 10. Citing a constitutional power vacuum, the chairman of Venezuela’s National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president, instantly winning the backing of numerous foreign governments. Only Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, Iran and some Caribbean islands, have stood firmly by him. Russia reportedly sent a team of private military contractors to beef up Maduro’s security.

Venezuela is a major buyer of Russian military hardware, including tanks, small arms and other equipment and Russia has invested billions in Venezuela’s failing parastatal petroleum company PDVSA.

So far at least, Venezuela’s military high command has remained loyal to Maduro, although there are fissures in the lower ranks that have resulted in several aborted rebellions in recent months. To ensure that loyalty, Maduro can also count on his socialist ally, Cuba, which is reputed to have a sophisticated surveillance and counter-intelligence presence, widely credited with keeping an eye on – and helping snuff out - military dissent.

Diplomatic pressure

Which begs the question, what does diplomatic pressure mean in today’s world? Is it just symbolic? Unless the Venezuelan military backs Guaidó’s move, it’s unlikely that Maduro will be toppled, most experts agree. Instead, the power struggle “could unleash greater repression,” according to the International Crisis Group (ICG) who’s resident expert in Caracas, Phil Gunson, is a veteran observer of Venezuelan affairs.

“If Maduro retains the armed forces’ support, he will almost certainly seek to stay in power and violently crush those who are challenging him,” Gunson says. “At that point, the ball will return to Guaidó’s foreign backers’ court. They could then face the uncomfortable dilemma of doing little and appearing impotent or courting disaster by intervening militarily.”

However, in the case of oil-rich Venezuela, there are some other financial levers that can be pulled. The country’s economy is in free fall with hyperinflation forecast to hit an unfathomable 10 million percent in 2019. More than three million have fled the political and economic crisis since 2015, according to the U.N., due to lack of jobs, food, and public health services, as well as political repression.

The U.S. has already imposed sanctions in the past two years targeting 75 top officials in the Maduro government, as well as restricting Venezuela's access to US debt markets and shady dealings in the country's gold trade.

The U.S, does have one other tool, lucrative oil imports which account for a major chunk of Venezuela’s foreign currency revenue. The White House has resisted taking that step for fear it could backfire by disrupting U.S. refinery operations in heavily red states along the Gulf Coast, as well as by causing an even greater humanitarian catastrophe in Venezuela which Maduro might exploit by blaming Washington.

This raises another ideological issue. The Trump administration will have to tread carefully to avoid inflaming nationalist tendencies. Just as in Cuba, Venezuela’s socialist regime was built on a foundation of ideological hostility towards U.S. “imperialism”. Today, Maduro is looking to stoke that fire any way he can. “This is nothing more than a coup d’etat, ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States,” Maduro told journalists Friday at the presidential palace. “They intend to put a puppet government in Venezuela, destroy the state and take colonial control of the country,” he added.

Military intervention

While many Venezuelans see American military intervention as their only salvation, it could be a godsend for Maduro, rallying popular forces behind the flag. Nor would military intervention be an assured victory. Venezuela is not Panama or Haiti. While it’s military is not battle tested, it is a large, well-equipped force with garrisons spread across the country. Moreover, former U.S. ambassador and Latin American expert John Feeley observed; “Venezuela is already in such a shambles that any invading force would be compelled by humanitarian reasons to remain as an occupying force to keep order and provide for interim government services until the Guaido government was capable to assume charge.”

Additionally, “the Trump administration is drawing down in Syria and Afghanistan; I believe it is unlikely to put new boots on the ground anywhere for any length of time,” he added.

Evan Ellis, a Latin America research professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, warns that a U.S. military intervention “would not only cause loss of life but would also risk fragmenting the already fragile balance among criminal and other entities, unleashing a wave of violence and refugees far beyond the tragedy already witnessed to date.”

While the Venezuelan military could be defeated quickly in conventional warfare, Maduro could potentially make an escape and mount a prolonged, guerrilla-style resistance. Furthermore, any effort to get U.N. backing for foreign intervention would most certainly be blocked in the Security Council by Russia and China.

So, to avoid the potential backlash from an oil embargo, the White House appears to be exploring a strategy of redirecting Venezuelan oil payments into the hands of Guaidó’s fledgling administration to help bolster his bid for power. It has already authorized $20 million in humanitarian aid which it plans to direct through the National Assembly. But it remains unclear how those finds will be delivered, unless a way can be found to bypass Maduro’s control of the state’s financial system.

On Monday the U.S. Treasury department issued sweeping new sanctions against PDVSA blocking its U.S. assets and requiring all payments to be deposited in a blocked account to keep funds out of Maduro's hands.

“Having poked the hornets' nest, the US, and likeminded democratic governments … must be prepared to truly protect and stand with over the long-term those Venezuelans who are courageously standing up for the restoration of democratic rule to Venezuela,” according to Ellis. Washington has so far indicated it will back Guaidó all the way, and defied an order by Maduro to remove all U.S. diplomats from the country.

Amnesty and/or new elections?

Finally, are there any inducements left to persuade Maduro to leave? In the past, tyrants were allowed to disappear with a suitcase of cash and a gilded exile in places like Panama. That’s where the Shah of Iran ended up, as well as Haiti’s General Raoul Cedras, Ecuador’s Abdullah Bucaram and Guatemala’s Elias Serrano.

The modern international legal framework makes that harder, and human rights groups insist that justice must be done for the sake of rule of law – and to dissuade future offenders. But Guaidó appears willing to make sacrifices in order to restore democracy. In an interview with Univision, he said he was willing to consider an amnesty for Maduro under a new law passed by the National Assembly offering benefits to anyone “ready to … restore constitutional order.”

Whether Maduro, or any of his loyalists, would choose this option is impossible to predict. It would be humiliating and inevitably be considered as a betrayal of the “socialism or death” slogan of Venezuela’s so-called ‘Bolivarian’ revolutionaries.

A more orderly and respectable exit for Maduro, many experts say, would be a new round of internationally supervised elections. That would appear to be the favored strategy of the European Union, as well as the Lima Group of 14 countries which was created to find a peaceful exit to the crisis in Venezuela.

The only solution to Venezuela’s crisis lies in a credible negotiated process that leads to free and fair elections that allow Venezuelans to choose their own leaders,” according to a joint statement by three leading pro-democracy groups in the region; the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Conectas Human Rights in Brazil and Dejusticia in Colombia.

“Pairing pressure with creative diplomacy is the best way to facilitate a return to democracy,” they added.