News from Caracas ricocheted around the globe last week. For a moment, the world held its collective breath. Could people power win in Venezuela? Indeed, it looked like recent events could mark a major new inflection point in Venezuela’s crisis.
But did something really transcendental happen in Venezuela? By sunset on May 1st, it became clear that neither the hoped-for mix of popular uprising nor the important defections of high-level government officials were going to occur.
The drama began at dawn of April 30th when interim president Juan Guaido called for an uprising on Labor Day from the La Carlota military base. Next, Venezuela’s most important political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez, was mysteriously released from house arrest and appeared next to Guaido at the military barracks. Unusual, uncoordinated and contradictory statements from Washington added to the suspense. US administration pronouncements identified several key Maduro officials by name, hinting that these officials in some way cooperated with the rebellion.
But as darkness settled over Caracas, all the high-level, presumed collaborators named by Washington– Defense Secretary Vladimir Padrino, the Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno and the director of counterintelligence Ivan Hernandez Dala – had re-pledged their support to Maduro. In the words of the US State Department’s Special Representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, all these high officials had “turned off their phone” by day’s end.
While the attempted takeover was a failure, the day’s events revealed deep fissures within the Maduro government. If there was any doubt that the regime’s internal structure was no longer monolithic, this proved it. We also discovered that the Trump administration was busy with more than just sanctions on key persons in the Maduro government. Until April 30th, sanctions seemed to be the core of US administration’s efforts.
Indeed, the plan to subvert the regime from the inside clearly had US fingerprints. That’s why the administration seemed so annoyed that it had gone wrong. The US must have made offers of some combination of money, immunity and safe-harbor in exchange for acquiring new partners in a plan designed to open opportunities for transitioning Venezuela to a new government.
Moreover, we also know that April 30th was not the day originally planned for the uprising. The plan called for the rebellion to take place on May 1st or 2nd and sources say that it was to begin with a statement by Maikel Moreno, the supreme court’s chief justice, calling for the need for a transition. Nonetheless, without forewarning either the US government or their partners inside the regime, Juan Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez suddenly and unilaterally advanced the date.
There are many conflicting theories about why the change-of-date occurred. The opposition’s official explanation is that they had clear intelligence information that Juan Guaido was going to be imminently arrested and the date had to be moved up to avoid arrest. Other sources say that the collaborators inside the administration were getting cold feet and advancing the date was a last, desperate attempt to pressure them.
Another theory is far less generous to the opposition’s leaders. Venezuela today is rife with rumors of rivalries between Leopoldo Lopez and his younger, highly-successful lieutenant, Juan Guaido. This theory suggests that Leopoldo was not part of the plan’s roll out. The fact that he managed his release on this very day meant that he was anxious not to cede the lead role to Juan Guaidó. Indeed, while Leopoldo is Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, some say he is seen as an unreliable partisan hothead by those in the Maduro regime who were going to defect. According to this view, once he ‘took over’ the rebellious activities, they decided to bolt.
It is true that the plan failed. But it is equally true that it will be a long time until Nicolas Maduro will again get a good night’s sleep. He now is acutely aware that his administration was penetrated by both the opposition and the US administration.
The question now is whether the regime can overcome this betrayal and continue to buy time. Time is Nicolas Maduro’s friend. With time, Cuban intelligence agents will correct the mistakes that allowed a conspiracy to form without their knowledge. It will give Russia time to expand its role as military advisor and political protector of the Chavista government. It will permit the Chinese to cement the purchase of blocks of oil to compensate for the nearly $30 billion in loans.
The Americans will also have to think carefully about their next move. Guaido, until today, could do no wrong. But for whatever reason, the opposition was not up to the task of implementing a plan that required tact and precision. Donald Trump, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams cannot be pleased with the amateur-hour rebellion.
The Trump administration has made the Venezuelan fight for freedom a cause célèbre. It deserves credit for pushing the Venezuela issue faster and farther than past US administrations. Washington has repeatedly stated that ‘all options remain on the table’ and a dejected, post-crisis Juan Guaido recently hinted that he might want Washington’s intervention.
A full-scale US military incursion into Venezuela would be a costly enterprise – in US lives and resources. The US would also pay a high political price in the region. Important Latin American countries have broken with past non-intervention policies to provide the Trump administration’s tough line much goodwill – particularly Colombia, the country most affected by the turmoil in Venezuela, and host to over 1.6 million Venezuelan refugees. That support would vanish overnight with the first bloodshed.
What is important in Venezuela is to keep up the pressure. It’s only a matter of time until the next attempt to take Maduro out. A fissure has opened. Water will start dripping out. Slowly at first. Then faster. We’ve arrived at a stalemate. Maduro is strong enough to resist, but not strong enough to repress the opposition. The opposition is strong enough to mobilize support, but not strong enough to dislodge the regime.
Ironically, this stalemate, and with international impatience growing, offers an opening now to those calling for some sort of negotiation. If Maduro perceives his hold on power is tenuous, and if the opposition realizes it has yet to have the support of the military, a middle ground negotiated approach could be a way out for both.
This could come from the Grupo de Contacto Internacional (GCI), a European-Latin American effort advanced by EU Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini. This effort has been pushing for a negotiated approach that must conclude with OAS-supervised elections. The Vatican has played a quiet, backseat role in the GCI, but its importance should be upgraded.
Negotiations are a viable enterprise to resolve political stalemates. But no negotiation is worth providing a whole new round of legitimacy to Maduro. Maduro cannot be allowed to negotiate for expanded breathing room. If both sides agree to negotiations, they must be short and precise – no longer than 45 days. Meanwhile, the Group of Lima and the US government should keep up the pressure. Sanctions must remain in place. Public statement must continue to pressure the regime. Every day, the regime should be put on the defensive by continuous proof that millions of refugees are leaving Venezuela malnourished and ill.
Change did not come to Venezuela last week. But, change will come.