Despite countless protests over the past several years and mounting international pressure, Nicolas Maduro is still president of Venezuela. Most government institutions at the national level still report to him, the military continues to back him and his diplomatic staff continue to carry out his agenda. This all suggests that his tenure in office is far from over, despite what his opponents, especially opposition leader Juan Guaido, would have people believe. Indeed, two and a half months after Guaido declared himself president, Maduro is still calling the shots in Caracas. It seems many, including the United States, have underestimated Maduro’s grip on power and overestimated the opposition’s ability to bring about regime change.
Losing Faith in the Opposition
Only a couple months ago, Guaido appeared to have momentum on his side, having won the backing of several foreign governments and having organized protests that seemed to test the limits of Maduro’s control. But several indicators now suggest that the momentum has slowed. First, the Venezuelan government continues to conduct business as usual with allies like Russia. This week, about 50 Venezuelan companies will arrive in Russia to sign a series of business deals. The Venezuelan government expects at least 20 agreements to be signed on issues such as the economy, trade, culture, power, engineering and education. Russia clearly wants to show the world that it believes Maduro and his government are here to stay.
Second, anti-Maduro governments have made subtle moves that suggest they see no end to the crisis in sight. Last week, the International Contact Group, an organization of eight European countries and four Latin American nations aimed at negotiating a settlement to the crisis, concluded its second meeting and announced a third meeting to be held in Costa Rica in May, which means the group expects the crisis to continue for at least another month. There are also growing rumors that members of the Lima Group may be second-guessing Guaido’s ability to oust Maduro and contemplating throwing their support behind the International Contact Group’s efforts to negotiate a resolution. Washington is also reportedly growing frustrated with the slow pace of change in Venezuela, but nothing yet suggests it will change its strategy.
Lastly, it’s worth noting some poignant comments made by former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos last week. He pointed out that Maduro needs a “dignified exit,” without which he will be forced to fight to the bitter end. Santos worked extensively on Venezuelan issues during his presidency and is arguably one of the world’s leading experts on Maduro and his government. His comments imply that the only way to get Maduro to step down is to offer him a deal that will allow him to save face. And without such a deal, Venezuela may be facing a prolonged internal conflict that could last years.
Maduro’s Staying Power
Given the level of opposition against him, how has Maduro managed to stay in power? The answer is largely related to his continued control over the security forces. The opposition has repeatedly called on the country’s armed forces to defend the constitution, support the will of the people and abandon Maduro – but so far, they have stayed loyal to the government. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the armed forces have 123,000 active military personnel and 8,000 reservists, though the Defense Ministry says the armed forces have 95,000-150,000 troops. The opposition claims that over 80 percent of the armed forces no longer support Maduro, but so far, only about 1,000 members have defected – and all of them have chosen to seek refuge in foreign countries rather than stay and fight alongside the opposition. The government has managed to keep military personnel loyal through its lucrative patronage network that connects military, government and black market activities and rewards participants with money, food and power. The government also has highly developed policing mechanisms within the military, ensuring that potential defectors can be quickly identified and family members easily targeted to deter any dissension.
The government also counts on two civilian groups to help maintain control, particularly in the streets. The first is the Bolivarian militia. Estimates on its size vary widely: The opposition claims it has as few as 20,000 active members, while the government claims it has 100,000 active members and the IISS says it has 220,000. Then there are pro-government armed groups known as “colectivos.” The Bolivarian militia and colectivos may not have formal training or professional equipment, but they do provide valuable support to the military. Indeed, the government has used a combination of civilian groups and military forces to maintain order many times in the past. In 2017, for example, Maduro deployed 200,000 personnel – including both civilian militias and military – to quell widespread anti-government protests. In February and March, the government conducted civil-military drills that focused on securing and defending electricity and water facilities.
In terms of finances, the Venezuelan economy has been in ruins for years now, yet the Maduro government has nonetheless managed to get by using a combination of black market activities to support its patronage network and formal economic mechanisms, such as gold reserves and cryptocurrencies, to conduct trade and oil sales despite U.S. sanctions. Here, support from countries like Russia and China has been essential; these countries have extensive experience skirting U.S. sanctions.
But Maduro’s staying power has also been a result of the opposition’s weakness. The Venezuelan opposition has two key challenges. First, it doesn’t have access to sufficient arms or training to be able to take on a professional military. This is one reason the opposition needs to pull more members of the military over to its side. Second, it lacks a patronage network that can be used to entice military personnel to join its cause. The opposition has offered amnesty to members of the military who defect, but its ability to follow through has to be questioned considering that Maduro still controls the government. Any attempt to revolt would be met with serious consequences.
The opposition has also struggled to convince some Venezuelans not to become complacent. Venezuelans have proved extremely resilient and resourceful, finding numerous ways to survive despite years of food shortages – including bartering over social media, constructing small garden plots, saving rain water and starting creative entrepreneurial endeavors. The opposition has repeatedly reminded protesters that they shouldn’t get used to substandard living conditions, especially as finding ways to cope becomes increasingly difficult. It calls for more protests every time there’s a water shortage, power outage or major transport disruption not only to send a message to the government but also to prevent the people from raising the threshold for conditions they’re willing to tolerate.
The Opposition’s Next Moves
The pressure is now on the opposition to announce its next steps. It has started what it calls “Operation Freedom,” a campaign to force Maduro out of office, consisting of some 800,000 registered volunteers (at least according to the opposition) who help disseminate information and organize protests. In phase one of Operation Freedom, the group is planning a mass, nationwide protest – the date has not been set yet but a rehearsal is scheduled for April 6.
If this all sounds like more of the same, that’s because, in many ways, it is. The opposition has held rally after rally – including on Feb. 23, when Guaido promised that foreign aid would be allowed into the country, and on Jan. 23, the day Guaido declared himself president – but so far none have managed to convince Maduro to step down. Doing more of the same hoping it will bring about a different result isn’t a promising strategy. There’s also been no mention of what will follow phase one, or even how many phases Operation Freedom involves. It’s possible that the opposition wants to keep parts of its plans secret for strategic reasons, but it’ll need to share at least some of its strategy to convince the public it can oust Maduro. Without doing so, Guaido is in danger of losing even more momentum.
To that end, Guaido is now more openly considering getting foreign militaries involved. Initially, the opposition wanted regime change to be imposed using only domestic forces. But faced with the reality that a revolt can’t happen without arms and troops, Guaido appears open to accepting outside support. He even pointed out that, when the British Legion fought with Simon Bolivar for independence in 1819, it was not considered an invading force but rather a source of support. He also said he may apply Article 187.11 of the constitution, which allows the National Assembly to approve foreign military action in Venezuela. (This clause is normally used to allow for military cooperation, humanitarian missions and joint military exercises.) If the opposition were to use this clause, it could be accused of contradicting itself – insisting it wants Venezuela to control its own fate but inviting U.S. support when it suits its interests.
But getting foreign military assistance would be extremely difficult at this point. The countries most likely to help would be the U.S., Colombia and Brazil, but they have all clearly stated they will not intervene militarily. Even the presence of 100 Russian military personnel in Venezuela won’t be enough to change Washington’s approach. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russian troops in Venezuela are there to service military equipment delivered to the country. The deployment may be connected with the Kalashnikov factory scheduled to open later this year. Some have speculated that the troops are there to inspect and repair the Russian-made S-300 air defense system Venezuela received in 2013, which has been in need of maintenance for a while.
The longer the Venezuela crisis drags on, the higher the chance that the opposition’s supporters will start to experience resistance fatigue. It’s taken the opposition two years to get to this point – to unite and gain the backing of major global players including the U.S. government. If it doesn’t force change soon, it’s in danger of losing support. And regaining momentum is far easier said than done.