All things considered, Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó has had a pretty good week: He won the backing of more influential foreign governments, plus a few more defections from the country’s political and military leadership, and is getting ready to take charge of opening the country to humanitarian aid from abroad in defiance of embattled president Nicolás Maduro, who has implausibly claimed that there is no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
Most importantly, he’s not in jail — an eventuality of which he is acutely aware, according to a Sunday New York Times profile of the 35-year-old, who stepped boldly into a global spotlight when, after becoming leader of the Venezuelan National Assembly in January, he declared Maduro’s government illegitimate and claimed the constitutional right to assume the presidency and organize new elections.
On Monday, over a dozen European countries joined the U.S., Canada, and much of Latin America in formally recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, after Maduro ignored a deadline they had set for calling new elections. The group included Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, but not Italy, whose coalition government is divided on whether to back him and blocked a joint E.U. position that would have recognized him on behalf of the entire bloc. The U.N. and other major international bodies are not taking sides in the conflict.
Despite now having the backing of the world’s most powerful democracies, Guaidó still lacks key pillars of domestic support that he would need in order to unseat Maduro, who has no intention of vacating the presidential palace voluntarily. While the young opposition leader appears to command a solid base of domestic support among citizens chafing under Maduro’s authoritarian leadership and economic mismanagement, many poorer Venezuelans remain ideologically committed to the petro-socialist vision of Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chávez, while millions who do support change have emigrated. In any case, not all the rallies in the streets of Caracas over the past two weeks have been pro-Guaidó.
Maduro also still holds key levers of institutional power, including the state broadcaster, a partisan judiciary he has infamously abused, and the public purse.
While Venezuela’s treasury has taken a hit from U.S. sanctions, Guaidó has claimed that the government is trying to move $1.2 billion from the state development bank Bandes to its Uruguayan subsidiary to evade sanctions (Uruguay is one of the few Latin American countries that has remained neutral on the crisis), and previously urged British authorities to prevent Maduro’s government from liquidating the country’s gold reserves held in the U.K. central bank. The fiscal situation in Caracas will only get tighter as new sanctions announced last week begin to eat into the country’s oil revenues: Tankers full of Venezuelan crude are piling up in the Gulf of Mexico, unable to legally offload their cargoes to U.S. refiners.
As these screws tighten, Maduro will likely look for other avenues for skirting the sanctions, lean more heavily on credit from Russia, and double down on his claims that the U.S. is attempting to overthrow his regime through economic warfare — and that Guaidó is but a tool of this imperialist scheme. At the same time, this economic pressure affords Guaidó an opportunity to solidify his movement’s gains this week by delivering the humanitarian assistance Maduro insists Venezuela doesn’t want. Of course, Guaidó does not take such a Machiavellian view of the situation, telling the Times it’s a matter of life and death, as some 250,000 to 300,000 Venezuelans’ lives could be at risk if they don’t get aid soon.
Meanwhile, the military — which would almost certainly need to turn on him for Guaidó’s constitutional coup to succeed — continues to stand by Maduro. Only a small handful of Venezuela’s 1,000 generals have thrown their support behind Guaidó, though he believes many rank-and-file soldiers support the opposition but are afraid to defy their commanders.
The national police and Venezuela’s paramilitary forces also remain loyal to the government and won’t shy away from doing violence to civilians: According to one criminologist, police and soldiers accounted for 27 percent of all homicides in Venezuela in 2017, compared to 4 percent in 2010, and the figure may have risen even higher last year. The police Special Action Force (FAES), which Maduro created in 2017 and which is fiercely loyal to him, has allegedly been responsible for many of these extrajudicial killings, including in the past week.
Even if the generals ultimately decide to back Guaidó, a conflict between the military and paramilitary groups or FAES could plunge Venezuela into a whole new level of crisis. Maduro is now calling on members of the national militia to enlist in the regular army ahead of military exercises coming up later this month, and alluding to the prospect of a foreign invasion. “We are preparing to defend the sacred motherland,” Maduro said at a pro-government rally on Saturday, “in case they one day dare to mess with our beloved Venezuela.”
That invasion isn’t exactly a figment of his imagination. In an interview with CBS on Sunday, President Donald Trump said he was keeping the option of a military intervention on the table, which drew a response from Russia’s foreign ministry saying the international community should concentrate on helping Venezuela “without destructive meddling.” Maduro also condemned Trump’s implied threat in a televised interview Sunday, warning him “not to repeat Vietnam in Latin America.”
As the crisis in Caracas drags on, the president may be increasingly tempted to intervene, especially with neocons like John Bolton and Elliott Abrams running the show. Nothing, however, would better help Maduro sell the public on his claim that the U.S. is trying to take over Venezuela than a literal American invasion of Venezuela. As we’ve seen in other countries, support from Washington can sometimes undermine a democratic movement rather than help it along, especially when that support comes in the form of bombs and boots. In an interview with CNN last week, Guaidó didn’t rule out accepting military support from the U.S. to help him oust Maduro, but described that as an undesirable scenario.
For now, Guaidó’s strategy is focused on building his support among the Venezuelan public to critical mass and persuading the military leadership to abandon Maduro. Things could change, however, if Maduro instructs the military to block the entry of aid across the border with Colombia this week, or orders a massacre of opposition protesters — and the military complies with those orders. Given Maduro’s determination to stay in power and his penchant for violence, it’s possible that the situation in Venezuela will deteriorate to the point that international intervention is merited to prevent an even greater humanitarian catastrophe.
Nonetheless, there is a big difference between a multilateral intervention initiated at Guaidó’s request and a hasty, uninvited assault by the U.S. alone. Neither is a good outcome by any means, but the latter could end up escalating rather than defusing the violence in Venezuela while further isolating the U.S. diplomatically and incurring significant costs. Our government’s foreign policy energies would be much better spent averting the need for a military option than planning for one. If Guaidó succeeds and Maduro goes, Venezuela is already going to need a lot of help getting back on its feet; a full-on war will only make that harder.