In what has seemed like a matter of weeks, Nicolás Maduro has gone from firmly in control of Venezuela to the middle of the most severe political crisis facing chavismo since 2002, when then-President Hugo Chávez was removed from power for 72 hours. Here’s a look at how Venezuela’s opposition was able to regain momentum, and the choices its leaders – and the regime – will face in coming days.
Maduro was already facing a number of pressure points as 2018 came to a close: a sustained fall in oil revenues due to declining production, a lack of direct financial support even from his closest international allies, consistent signs of displeasure among the military establishment, about 70 percent of the country against him, and overwhelming international condemnation of the presidential election held in May of last year.
But a key ingredient was still missing. There was seemingly no opposition capable of channeling public frustration into a sustained push against the regime. Juan Guaidó’s rise in the opposition-led National Assembly earlier this year changed that, for several reasons.
First, Venezuelans have long been clamoring for an outsider to shake up the opposition (as seen by the push to enlist Empresas Polar CEO Lorenzo Mendoza into last year’s elections). In a recent Delphos poll, 50 percent of the population said they were hoping for the arrival of a leader not associated with the traditional establishment. In a sense, that’s what they got with Guaidó.
Though he represents one of the main opposition parties, Guaidó is young and a relative unknown – before being designated president of the Assembly, less than 3 percent of the population knew who he was. His personal story resonates with the public – his upbringing, his family and even his physical appearance make him an easy figure for the majority to support. He strikes a firm tone but does not have the mastery of public speaking that make other officials come off as slippery or disconnected.
Guaidó’s personal story and skills as a politician are vitally important, but his rise to prominence has in many ways been a matter of timing. Guaidó arrived on the scene just as Maduro was preparing to be sworn in for a disputed second term. That had already raised expectations from the public and the international community of a renewed opportunity to take on the regime (notably underlined by the Lima Group’s Jan. 4 declaration that they did not recognize Maduro’s election and that he should not be sworn in as president).
In a change from only months ago, Venezuela’s opposition has played its cards surprisingly well. With burgeoning international support and a clear mandate from the public (at the end of last year, 35 percent of Venezuelans said they would march in the streets against Maduro if they had leadership that inspired confidence), the opposition began to build a sense of unity through cabildos abiertos, small neighborhood gatherings that were hard to repress because of their peaceful character and limited size. These meetings, held in different neighborhoods on different days throughout the country, helped re-activate public energy against the regime.
In that context, and with added pressure from the U.S. and others, the idea of having Guaidó declared president, based on Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution and his role as leader of the National Assembly, started to emerge. The fact that Maduro would start a new term without the backing of internationally-recognized elections was key.
Also key was that the opposition kept its cool, remaining ambiguous about its plans. Then, during what turned out to be a massive march against the regime on Jan. 23, they took the leap: In the middle of his speech in Caracas, Guaidó announced the decision to assume responsibility as president, invoking a constitutional requirement for the president of the Assembly to take office on an interim basis when the presidency is declared vacant.
Since Guaidó’s proclamation, events in Venezuela have been moving fast. The immediate conflict of having two presidents in office at the same time is almost certain to be resolved, one way or another, in the very short term. It’s a 100-meter sprint, and there are several reasons to believe that Maduro got a late start.
Maduro has so far responded defensively to the crisis. Though the regime could have detained Guaidó at any moment, more than five days after his pronouncement he is still free and leading acts in public. The government on Jan. 29 announced an investigation that will freeze Guaidó’s assets and block him from leaving the country. But even that represents a relatively passive move by Maduro, especially considering he’s faced with an opposition leader who is now recognized by many, both at home and abroad, as the country’s lawful president.
Indeed, much of the international community has been as clear as it has ever been in treating Maduro’s presidency as illegitimate. The U.S. recognized Guaidó within minutes of him being declared interim president, suggesting some degree of coordination between the two. Canada, Brazil, Colombia and more than a dozen others quickly followed suit. The EU has given Maduro until Feb. 2 to accept new elections, or they will do the same.
The U.S. has placed Maduro further into a corner by imposing strict sanctions on Venezuela’s oil company and refusing to discard the possibility of military intervention. National Security Adviser John Bolton was recently photographed with a notepad reading “5,000 troops to Colombia.” The U.S. government has sent a military delegation led by General Mark Stammer to Bogotá to coordinate with allies, and repeatedly said that all possibilities are on the table. Whether or not the White House is seriously entertaining the idea of military action, the threat is beginning to feel more real, and will have an important effect on the military sector in Venezuela. Is Maduro someone they’re ready to fight for?
Until now, Maduro has been able to stay in power primarily because of support from the military establishment. But there are signs of fracture, including constant cases of desertion, pronouncements by military members against the regime and the frequent detention of active officials. Venezuela’s military command took more than 24 hours to make an announcement on national television after Guaidó was declared interim president.
Under current circumstances, the most likely outcomes for Maduro are a voluntary, negotiated exit or an exit through violent means. Which of these two happens will depend in large part on whether those signs of fracture in the military turn into a full break. One important caveat is that China, Russia and Cuba – through strategic support – could prolong Maduro in office. Russia could be particularly active in this regard.
Indeed, what may end up saving Maduro is time. The longer he stays in office, the likelier it is that his continued control will sap the public’s energy and urgent demand for change. He may wait for an opposition misstep that would help reduce the public confidence that Guaidó and others have regained in recent weeks. The hope for division in the opposition may help explain Maduro’s calls for dialogue and relatively defensive response to the crisis so far.
The opposition’s task, then, is to scale up pressure on the regime in a systematic and controlled way, and to capitalize on international support. That, and a continued show of unity, will keep the Venezuelan public active – and overwhelmingly on the opposition’s side.
Seijas Rodríguez is a Venezuelan political analyst and statistician, Ph.D. He is the director of the Delphos poll.