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What Happens Next in Venezuela?

Published 13 May 2019
Moises Rendon
Protester facing the Venezuelan National Guard, 2017

Venezuelans came close to ousting Nicolás Maduro from power last week. According to reports, Venezuelan opposition leaders have been negotiating with key military and government officials to remove Maduro from office and restore Venezuela’s constitutional order. However, the plan fell apart quickly after key military generals backed off. Last week’s events revealed both cracks within Maduro’s military loyalists and the opposition’s lack of fully coordinated strategy, leaving questions of what happens next for Venezuela, Latin America, and the role of the United States.

The United States and the Lima Group continue to increase pressure on the Maduro regime with diplomatic measures while challenging his legitimacy to continue in office. In addition, the United States and Canada have imposed multiple sanctions, mostly individual sanctions to over a hundred of government-affiliated Venezuelan officials. Financial sanctions were imposed, starting in 2017, while oil sanctions came into full effect with the end of the wind-down period that ended April 28, 2019. Despite external support by Russia, Cuba, China, and a few other countries, Maduro is more isolated diplomatically and economically now than ever before. That being said, the existing external and internal pressures have not been enough to convince Maduro and his inner circle to negotiate their exit ramp.

Spain and Mexico are calling for new elections and negotiations. But the possibility to conduct free and fair elections with Maduro in office is not realistic as neither the regime nor opposition leaders are willing to accept. The prevalence of narcotrafficking, massive corruption, money laundering, and criminal networks means the Maduro regime operates essentially as a mafia state. Maduro runs the country by demanding loyalty with a high price to pay for defection, elevating the cost to find a peaceful transition.

The status quo is likely to continue, accelerating the deterioration of the Venezuelan state and the well-being of its people. The current humanitarian and economic crisis threatens the security and stability of the entire region. According to the Working Groupon Venezuelan migrants and refugees of the Organization of American States, the total number of forced migrants could be between 7.5 and 8.2 million by 2020. The most impacted countries, including neighboring Colombia and Brazil, are overwhelmed with the increasing flows. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations recently placed Venezuela in the list of countries with a high risk of severe deterioration in food security. In addition to daily blackouts, there is widespread scarcity of food and medicine. The regime has been weaponizing food for years by militarizing distribution and politicizing the recipients.

In addition, Venezuela’s sovereignty is compromised. Cubans, Colombian rebels, Hezbollah militants, and foreign powers such as Russia have presence in Venezuela’s territory. There are no undisputed numbers, but U.S. officials believe there are about20,000 Cubans in Venezuela, including security forces, intelligence agents, among others such as doctors and health professionals. Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) have presence roughly in half of the states of Venezuela. Former Venezuelan vice president, Tareck El Aissami, who is one of the most powerful men in the Maduro regime and has been sanctioned under the Kingpin Act by the U.S. Treasury Department, has reportedly helped Hezbollah militants to operate in the country, including by facilitating fraudulent Venezuelan passports. Despite Trump’srecent assertion that Putin is not looking to get involved in Venezuela, Russia is continuing to fish in troubled waters. Recently, Russia sent two planes to Venezuela with dozens of soldiers and military advisers claiming of only fulfilling with maintenance contracts. Russia’s relationship with Venezuela is at least a decade old when former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez entered into multiple agreements with Russia, including$17 billion in loans and credit lines.

As diplomatic efforts have not worked, the possibility of a U.S. military intervention has been signaled with the assertion that “all options are on the table,” a phrase repeated both by Juan Guaidó and the Trump administration. However, this option meets resistance among the international community, including the Lima Group, given past U.S. history of military intervention and the belief that military activity in Venezuela could increase even more chaos.

What happens next in Venezuela is highly uncertain. Moving forward, the international community will debate whether to pursue new dialogue attempt and the prospect of conducting elections with Maduro in office. Alternatively, the international community can continue to increase pressure on the Maduro regime, with the possibility of using more and multilateral sanctions, and pressure countries like Russia and Cuba to cease their support for Maduro.

Moises Rendon is an associate fellow and associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This article was first published by the Center For Strategic & International Studies on 10 May 2019. This article was republished with permission.