To many observers the Maduro regime has remained surprisingly resilient. His government withstood widespread opposition protests through the spring of 2019. It has survived the recognition by over 50 countries of opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s rightful ruler, a development that severely challenged the regime’s legitimacy. The mainstream media’s excited anticipation of Maduro’s fall from power reached its height with Guaidó’s attempt to instigate a military uprising. The uprising failed, however, and opposition protests have petered out.
The Failure of the Opposition Strategy and the Onset of Negotiations
By mid-May, both government and opposition were sending representatives to Oslo to open preliminary discussions. Beginning this week, Norway will host discussions to resolve the crisis by negotiation—a process that Guaidó had steadfastly refused until now. The U.S., which pursued harsh sanctions against the regime in 2017 and 2019, resumed its purchase of Venezuelan oil in the week ending May 17. The strategy of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions, which exacerbated the country’s already deteriorating economic situation (high inflation, devastating shortages of food and medicines) failed to dislodge Maduro from power. How did Guaidó’s international supporters not anticipate this outcome?
Explaining Maduro’s Resiliency: The Loyalty of the Military and the Legacy of Chavismo
The answer to that question lies in a failure to grasp the peculiarities of the Venezuelan context, both historical and current. As noted in an earlier post, the opposition’s track record on respect for democracy has been far from stellar. A number of its leaders instigated a military coup (with U.S. support) that ousted Chavez from power in 2002—he was brought back after massive demonstrations in Venezuela and international condemnation. Not surprisingly, therefore, both Chavez and Maduro stacked the military with loyal supporters, dismissing those whose loyalty was suspect. More importantly, however, is the fact that both the Chavez and Maduro regimes afforded the upper echelons of the military and the National Guard opportunities to acquire substantial wealth. Insight Crime has extensively documented the involvement of the top leadership, particularly the National Guard, in drug trafficking. Without a negotiated agreement that provides assurances against criminal prosecution, senior military leaders and the National Guard have an enormously powerful incentive to remain loyal to the regime.
However, there are other reasons, extending beyond the simple fact of military loyalty, to have anticipated the current outcome. It is true, as the mainstream media so frequently noted, that the regime employed repression, jailing opposition leaders and at times employing lethal force against protesters--although the fact that opposition demonstrations continued might suggest that the repression employed was not especially brutal by international standards. It is important to recognize that despite the severe humanitarian crisis, the Maduro regime retains a core of diehard supporters, estimated at about one-fifth of the population, with that support coming largely from among the poor who have suffered the most from the current crisis. This fearless loyalty is understandable. Chavez funneled revenues from the petroleum boom into substantial poverty reduction, something past regimes had not done in any appreciable way. Guaidó’s supporters (particularly the international ones) also erred in their dismissal of demonstrations supporting the regime as weak and mostly state-orchestrated. Support for Chavismo (and by extension for Maduro, Chavez’s anointed successor) arises largely from the concrete material improvement experienced by many Venezuelans during Chavez’s years in power. The complexities of the unsustainability of Chavez poorly conceived neo-extractivist populism has not been part of the opposition’s arsenal of criticisms. Instead, the conflict between government and opposition has descended into an ideological war, between the evils of socialism and the machinations of imperialism. The mainstream media has been particularly inclined to focus on the idea of Venezuela as a dismal socialist failure, while Maduro has effectively played upon popular suspicions of U.S. intentions surrounding Venezuela’s massive hydrocarbon reserves along with popular fears of U.S. military intervention.
The Shortsightedness of the Opposition Strategy
The opposition’s success depended upon winning over and maintaining support from former Chavez supporters. Recall that public support for Chavez had been substantial: during his tenure in office, Chavez won the 2000 and 2006 elections with over 60 percent of the vote, and the 2012 election with 55 percent of the vote. The opposition and international strategy for removing Chavez was not a wise one. It involved the absence of a negotiated settlement. Not only do most Venezuelans support a negotiated settlement but a recent survey shows that nearly one-half support a transition government that includes Chavistas. The opposition strategy also involved obtaining international recognition and strong support for a hitherto obscure opposition leader. The strategy was particularly problematic because of the aggressive position of the U.S., whose aim was the immediate removal of Maduro from power. The U.S. followed its recognition of Guaido’s leadership with tough economic sanctions in 2017 and 2019 and supplemented these measures with U.S. presidential references to the “option” of military intervention. These developments combined with Guaidó’s statement that his new government would not require foreign oil companies to partner with the state petroleum company in the exploitation of Venezuelan reserves, played into public suspicions about foreign intent regarding Venezuelan oil reserves. In short, the opposition and the international (particularly U.S.) strategy for removing Maduro from power, was highly susceptible to the regime’s nationalist interpretation of events. Academics have debated the extent to which the U.S. sanctions have contributed to the country’s most recent social deterioration. Whatever the extent of the impact, the presence of U.S. sanctions plays into the interpretation of the U.S and its Venezuelan opposition allies as seeking to remove the current regime from power by deepening the suffering of the most disadvantaged.
Negotiations: More Difficult than ever
The opposition has opposed negotiations arguing that the Maduro government sabotaged past attempts at a negotiated settlement, using negotiations as a pretext to hold onto power. However, the current deadlock is clear evidence that negotiation, whatever its challenges, is probably the only way forward. Unfortunately, the events since January 2019, involving internationally supported opposition mobilization led by Juan Guaidó, has only served to increase political polarization in an already deeply polarized country. A negotiated settlement will now be more difficult than ever.