Venezuelan opposition leader and self-styled interim president Juan Guaidó returned to Caracas on Monday, defying a threat by embattled president Nicolás Maduro to have him arrested if he came back to Venezuela. Despite being under orders from the Venezuelan supreme court not to leave the country, the 35-year-old Guaidó had departed for Colombia on February 23 to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid from neighboring countries to alleviate shortages of food and medicine.
That effort was unsuccessful: Maduro, who has alleged that the aid trucks are cover for a military intervention, made good on a promise to close the borders and block them from entering the country. Only one truck made it through, from Brazil, while at least six people were killed in clashes between opposition protesters and soldiers enforcing the blockade at border crossings. The clashes further inflamed tensions in the country, just as the failed aid delivery left Venezuela mired in a humanitarian crisis whose existence Maduro continues to deny.
While in Colombia, Guaidó also met with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence before traveling onward to Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Ecuador to meet with heads of state and bolster these countries’ backing of the transitional government he is attempting to lead. Guaidó has been recognized as the legitimate president of Venezuela by the United States and around 50 other countries, including most of Latin America. Several countries sent their envoys in Venezuela to greet him at the airport on Monday as a show of support, as well as to offer him a measure of protection on his way into Caracas in case the government attempted to detain him.
The Trump administration had warned Maduro’s regime not to arrest Guaidó or take any other action against him. The U.S. ratcheted up sanctions on Venezuela on Friday, targeting high-ranking members of Maduro’s security forces. U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports — an essential source of revenue for the petro-state — caused them to decline 40 percent last month.
The U.S. also put forward a resolution in the U.N. Security Council last week calling for new elections in Venezuela and for aid to be allowed in, which was blocked by Russia and China. Russia, which continues to back Maduro as a legitimate head of government, has accused the U.S. of violating Venezuela’s sovereignty and preparing a military intervention to oust Maduro by force. Nonetheless, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday that Moscow was willing to enter bilateral talks with the U.S. regarding the situation.
The prospect of a U.S. military intervention in Venezuela is not limited to the imaginations of Maduro and Lavrov: National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump’s special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams are both unabashed neoconservatives who have supported such misadventures in other countries. Nonetheless, it looks unlikely at this point, as the Trump administration has opted for a coercive strategy of sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and multilateral pressure to achieve the goal of regime change in Caracas.
This is a wise choice, as a foreign invasion is perhaps the only thing less popular in Venezuela right now than Maduro himself, and could easily backfire by reaffirming the loyalty of the Venezuelan military and security forces to the regime. While Republicans have gladly dinged prominent Democrats for expressing opposition to an intervention, one need not be a Maduro supporter to see that as a poor course of action, especially considering the disastrous results of previous U.S. regime change operations in Latin America and beyond.
Unfortunately, Maduro’s military brass has yet to turn on him, even though Guaidó claims that most of the country’s rank-and-file soldiers support his protest movement and many are defecting. Barring the use of force by outside actors, the armed forces will ultimately decide whether Maduro stays or goes — as is true of all dictators. In that regard, the deployment of soldiers to burn aid trucks and fire on civilian protesters last week was a demoralizing moment for Guaidó’s supporters, indicating that Maduro maintains a firm enough grip on the military to carry out such atrocities.
“Democratization,” political scientist Javier Corrales wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday, “requires decoupling the military from Maduro,” a process complicated by the unconventional structure of Venezuela’s security forces. Instead of one centralized chain of command, the Venezuelan military consists of several independent elements: the regular army operates alongside nonstandard groups of “ideologized soldiers” and “bureaucrat generals,” in addition to the special forces and civilian colectivos who act as Maduro’s extrajudicial assassination and terror squads.
The trouble with Guaidó’s approach to the military, Corrales argues, is that his offer is only attractive to one of these groups: the regular soldiers, to whom he has promised amnesty for crimes they may have committed on the regime’s orders. Hard-core ideologues won’t be swayed by this, nor will the “bureaucrat generals” who will lose their corrupt cash cows under a legitimate government, amnesty or not. Before the military can become a partner in democratization, it must be restored to order and these irregular elements shaken out. The transition to democracy will require “applying a combination of force and some concessions to the least professional groups within the military,” Corrales concludes, which will “no doubt will be unpleasant for Venezuelan democrats.”
One might also add that a regime change facilitated by the military in its current condition could lead to an outcome no better than what Venezuela has now. For example, many Middle Eastern countries have suffered from similarly compartmentalized security establishments, with independent and sometimes competing groups of corrupt generals, unaccountable intelligence and secret service forces, and government-backed militias or gangs. Populist revolutions in these countries often resulted in new military dictatorships, the most recent example being Egypt in 2011–2013. If Maduro is ousted by his generals today, there’s no guarantee that they will then usher in a democratic transition.
Guaidó may have hoped for a relatively quick and painless end to the Maduro regime, driven by a critical mass of people power, but now he’s looking at a more protracted fight: a fact he acknowledged on Sunday when he predicted a “long and difficult process.” He may well be jailed in the coming days, and even if he remains free, he will need to renew and sustain the momentum of his movement while figuring out a more effective strategy for separating Maduro from the forces keeping him in power. He will also need all the help he can get from abroad — that is, without his international backers giving him wrong kind of help.