Venezuela’s power struggle reaches a tense stalemate, as human suffering deepens

Even in a country where crisis has become the norm, the past month has been eventful.

On April 3 Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan National Assembly president who is leading an effort to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity. Arrest seems increasingly likely. Guaidó’s chief-of-staff was jailed on March 22, on charges of organizing a “terrorist cell.”

Two days later, two Russian military planes carrying 35 tons of unspecified equipment and 100 soldiers landed at the international airport in Caracas.

Meanwhile, three blackouts left over 90 percent of the country in the dark. Since water pumps need electricity to run, neighborhoods and families were forced to organize water rationing systems or fetch water from polluted rivers and streams.

Maduro blames the blackouts on “sabotage” by Guaidó and the United States. The opposition blames government corruption and neglect of Venezuela’s energy grid.

Thousands of Venezuelans protesting the power outages on March 30 were met with violent repression. Counter-protestors came out to support the Maduro government.

These extraordinary events may give the appearance that armed conflict is on the horizon. But having researched Venezuela for over 25 years, I believe a prolonged deadlock – and deeper human suffering – is the more likely result.

International conflict

Each side in Venezuela’s political struggle has powerful international backers.

Guaidó has been coordinating with the Trump administration since before assuming the interim presidency, and Trump has made regime change in Venezuela a foreign policy priority. Over 50 countries now recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó at a rally in Caracas, March 29, 2019. Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Maduro’s government retains important support from Cuba, Turkey and China – though China, which has loaned Venezuela some $60 billion over the last 12 years, has diminished its public backing of Maduro.

Russia has become Maduro’s most important ally. The Russian military equipment and personnel sent in March will likely help maintain and operate Venezuela’s sophisticated Russian-made S-300 air defense system, which protects the capital and key military bases from air attack.

The missile defense system may have been damaged in recent power outages, or left understaffed by desertions from Venezuela’s military.

In a March 29 press statement, White House national security adviser John Bolton called Russia’s military assistance to Venezuela a “direct threat to international peace and security in the region” that will “perpetuate the economic crisis that has destroyed Venezuela’s economy.”

Russian officials retorted that the deployment is part of a prior bilateral arms trade agreement with Venezuela.

“The United States is present in many parts of the world and no one is telling it where it should or shouldn’t be,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov at a March 28 Kremlin press conference.

Regime change stalled

Venezuela’s opposition coalition and its allies in the U.S. appear to have thought that global rejection of Maduro’s re-election and Guaidó’s assuming the interim presidency – coupled with threats of a U.S. military invasion and sanctions on Venezuelan oil – would lead Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against Maduro. That would then usher in a democratic transition.

Eighty percent of Venezuelans oppose Maduro, but he retains some popular support – and the power of the Venezuelan armed forces. Miraflores Palace via Reuters
Recent events have shown that this strategy was simplistic.

More than 500 Venezuelan soldiers have defected to Colombia and Brazil. But most have stayed loyal, as have the generals who hold high positions in Maduro’s government. And Maduro has shown himself quite adept at using dispersed violence to discourage dissent.