Why Venezuela’s Regime Hasn’t Collapsed

In order to get the Communist Dictator Maduro to step down and call for free and fair elections, Venezuela’s opposition must break up the military-civilian alliance that is keeping him in power. Getting there will require, first, that the military no longer benefits from supporting Maduro. With the support of international allies such as the United States, Guaidó has already made some progress on this front. Yet the military also needs credible guarantees that it won’t be prosecuted or penalized under a new regime—something that the opposition has failed to provide so far. Absent such a guarantee, it is unlikely that the military will turn on Venezuela’s dictator.

By Laura Gamboa Gutiérrez for Foreign Affairs

At dawn on April 30, Venezuelan opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López appeared at a military base in Caracas and called on citizens and the military to begin the “final phase” of ousting President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition leaders had called on citizens to rise against the government before, but their decision to appeal directly to the military was seen as a game-changer. By sunset that same day, however, López and his family had sought refuge in the Spanish embassy and Guaidó had gone silent for several hours. It was all but certain that the attempted uprising had failed.

What happened? Some have suggested that Guaidó, who has mounted a direct challenge to Maduro’s presidency since January, did not manage to project enough of a sense of confidence and inevitability for the uprising to gather momentum. Others have claimed that, forced by rumors that the government was going to issue an arrest warrant, Guaidó had jumped the gun and acted a day earlier than he and several military leaders had agreed on, spooking his allies in the armed forces. The truth, however, is more complex.

In order to get Maduro to step down and call for free and fair elections, Venezuela’s opposition must break up the military-civilian alliance that is keeping him in power. Getting there will require, first, that the military no longer benefits from supporting Maduro. With the support of international allies such as the United States, Guaidó has already made some progress on this front. Yet the military also needs credible guarantees that it won’t be prosecuted or penalized under a new regime—something that the opposition has failed to provide so far. Absent such a guarantee, it is unlikely that the military will turn on Venezuela’s dictator.

Transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy are by nature very uncertain. They require some kind of break in the ruling coalition together with moves by the opposition that make it easier for the government to step down than to hold on to power. There are good reasons to hope that Venezuela is on the right track in this regard. The opposition, long subdued and riven by infighting, seems to have moved past previous missteps and tamed factional strife. In January, Guaidó, acting as head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as interim president. Soon thereafter, the United States, Canada, most Latin American countries, and the European Union all recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. The move shifted the government opposition equilibrium that was established in 2016 and, for the first time since 2015, put the government in a defensive position.

To succeed in ousting Maduro, however, Guaidó will need to get the Venezuelan armed forces on his side. Maduro does not have the charisma of Hugo Chávez, who was the country’s president from 1999 until his death, in 2013, nor has he been able to benefit from the same oil windfall as his predecessor. Since coming to power, Maduro has overseen a country in crisis. Inflation is expected to reach ten million percent this year, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country, and the ones staying behind lack food and medicines. Unsurprisingly, Maduro is deeply unpopular, and he has relied on the military for his government’s survival. In exchange for suppressing popular discontent, the military has gotten control of PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, and used the government’s mantle of impunity to run and profit from drug trafficking and black-market trading. High-ranking members in the armed forces continue siding with Maduro because they do not want to lose this revenue stream or face prosecution for corruption, drug trafficking, and human rights abuses such as the death of protesters, unjust imprisonment, and torture.

To change the generals’ calculus, the opposition has tried to reduce the benefits that the military derives from supporting the regime. Targeted international sanctions have been a big part of this process. By drawing attention to the situation in Venezuela and lobbying foreign governments, the opposition has gotten other countries to increase the pressure on Maduro. The U.S. Treasury Department, for example, has frozen the money of 88 Venezuelans as of May 10, including members of Maduro’s inner circle, such as General Vladimir Padrino, Venezuela’s defense minister. The measures not only affect the material benefits of those who surround Maduro; they also remind them of their vulnerability to prosecution.

The opposition has also made it costlier for the military to keep supporting the regime by organizing peaceful demonstrations. The number of such protests has gone up dramatically in recent months, from around 700 from October to December 2018 to more than 6,000 in the first three months of 2019. The government, unwilling to respond to the protesters’ concerns, has resorted to repression, imprisoning activists and opposition leaders and at times even firing on protesters. This strategy can easily fail, since it might encourage the defections of officers who are reluctant to use violence against fellow citizens or who worry about facing human rights trials in the future.


Protesters and security forces clashing in Caracas, May 2019

Yet chipping away at Maduro’s military support is only half the equation. The opposition also needs to offer Maduro’s backers a way out. Venezuela’s generals would rather stay penniless but in power than step down and end up imprisoned. Here is where amnesty and transitional justice mechanisms come in: the opposition needs to craft amnesty laws attractive enough for those in office to give up power and comprehensive enough that they will not be overturned by domestic or international courts in the future.

So far, attempts to do so have failed. Earlier this year, Venezuela’s National Assembly introduced a law promising amnesty to any bureaucrats and members of the armed forces who, in keeping with their constitutional duty, helped with the restitution of democracy in the country. Yet the bill has faced criticism by human rights organizations and victims of political repression and has not generated nearly enough defections to be effective.

Part of the problem is a lack of trust on both sides. There is ample evidence suggesting that low- and high-ranking members of the armed forces are ready to withdraw their support from Maduro. The alleged backdoor deal between opposition and government officials ahead of the April 30 uprising indicates that opposition leaders and individuals close to the president could indeed come to an agreement. How to guarantee and enforce the terms of the deal, however, is a more complicated story. The opposition has a hard time trusting powerful regime insiders, since the latter have often just used negotiations with the opposition to buy time. Guaidó also needs to balance different factions inside the opposition, some of which are more willing to compromise with the regime than others.


Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez at a news conference in Caracas, February 2018

Officials in the government and military, for their part, worry about what will happen once they have no leverage. Will the opposition renege on its promises and seek retribution, as it did during a short-lived coup in 2002 when the opposition briefly ousted then President Hugo Chávez with the help of the armed forces? At the time, the expectation was that, once in office, opposition leaders would abide by the constitution in appointing Chávez’s successor. Instead, Pedro Carmona, a business leader and a central opposition figure, swore himself in as president, ignoring the line of succession laid out by the constitution. During his two-day rule, Carmona suspended the constitution, shut down Parliament and the courts, impeached recently elected governors and mayors, and started persecuting former Chavistas. Today, Maduro loyalists fear a repeat of this scenario should they abandon the sitting president. Members of the armed forces and other government bodies are also unsure if they can trust each other once they defect: if all goes well, the government has to step down. If all goes wrong and government allies discover that they are dealing with the opposition, they are likely to end up dead or in jail.

Usually these credibility problems are solved by getting a neutral third party to act as guarantor. A coalition of Latin American countries, for example, served as guarantor for democratic transitions in Central America during the 1990s. Yet finding a set of countries or organizations that could serve that role in Venezuela has been complicated. The most suitable contenders, such as the Organization of American States and the Lima Group, a collection of 12 states committed to help Venezuela resolve its crisis, have already come out in support of Guaidó’s interim government. The ones that haven’t are either Maduro allies with questionable democratic credentials, such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, or have alienated the Venezuelan opposition, as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador did when he invited Maduro to his inauguration in December. This week, Norway invited government and opposition delegates for talks, but the opposition remains skeptical. Two previous attempts to negotiate with the government in 2016 and 2017, the latter hosted by the Dominican Republic, simply allowed the Maduro regime to stall, failed to produce meaningful results, and sapped the opposition of its momentum.

In other words, Guaidó and his allies appear to have made little headway. Not all is lost, however. Transitions to democracy are often uneven and nonlinear. The failure of last month’s uprising does not mean that Maduro will last forever. In fact, seeing how close the opposition got to toppling him might have made Maduro more willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue in Norway. Until that happens, however, the unforgiving logic of regime change will continue to compel his military backers to stand by him—at least for now.

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