For the first time since opposition leader Juan Guaido announced his bid to unseat President Nicolas Maduro in January, efforts at regime change in Venezuela face the real risk of failure. Though Guaido is free to move about the country and rally crowds against Maduro, there are still no signs he has the support of the key military commanders needed to initiate a prompt and relatively peaceful political transition, despite the United States and the opposition's best efforts. As long as his military remains loyal, Maduro's government will remain in Caracas — leaving Guaido, as well as other prominent opposition figures in Venezuela, vulnerable to a crackdown that could end his bid for power altogether.
Venezuela's resurgent political opposition has been working to oust President Nicolas Maduro for nearly three months — but so far, to no avail. Despite rising sanctions pressure and the threat of military intervention from the United States, Maduro's government and his military's loyalty remain intact. And as a result, the chances that Venezuela's left-wing government can delay its departure for months, or potentially longer, are rising.
The Loyalty of the Military
The continued allegiance of high-ranking officials in the military remains the chief hurdle to opposition efforts to overthrow Maduro. The opposition's efforts at creating a military schism have so far failed. Commanders did not quickly desert Maduro in the wake of severe U.S. sanctions in January as the United States had hoped for. Instead, they have remained by his side, likely convinced by a combination of threats and financial incentives.
To seriously threaten Maduro, the opposition needs enough military commanders to come to its side, likely by convincing them that the new government will allow them to keep their privileges, power and — in some cases — ill-gotten gains. Any such amnesty agreement would, in theory, allow them to leave power without facing greater repercussions of arrest, imprisonment or extradition to the United States. However, it's unlikely that opposition negotiations will yield a quick political transition. Financial incentives for military officials to remain in power are too great, and the Maduro government will continue to intimidate, bribe or arrest officers perceived to be talking with the opposition.
In addition, the recent arrest of former military intelligence chief Hugo Carvajal has cast a cloud over opposition efforts to sway military officials. Nearly two months after declaring his allegiance to Guaido, Carvajal was arrested April 13 in Spain under a U.S. warrant on cocaine trafficking charges. His successful extradition to the United States would likely have a chilling effect on other military officers thinking about defecting to the opposition — especially since some commanders are involved in trafficking activities that could also land them in a U.S. prison.
Tightening the Noose of U.S. Sanctions
In an attempt to accelerate Maduro's exit, the United States will turn up the sanctions heat by implementing secondary sanctions that prohibit other countries' companies from doing business with Venezuela's state-run energy sector. Signs that Washington might also decide to pressure specific European energy companies to reduce their business ties with Caracas' natural gas sector have emerged following the recent meeting between the U.S. special representative for Venezuela and officials at the Spanish company Repsol. Repsol and Italian company Eni own stakes in an offshore natural gas joint venture that accounts for roughly 15 percent of Venezuela's total gas production. Since Venezuela reinjects natural gas into wells to keep pumping oil, if Repsol and Eni were to reduce their presence in Venezuela, the latter's oil production would plummet even more sharply.
But military commanders' loyalty to Maduro has so far withstood the increasing weight of U.S. sanctions, and will likely continue to hold strong despite these new threats from Washington — even as the country's economy and infrastructure crumble around it.
With Guaido in jail, military dissidents cowed into submission and commanders willing to repress political opponents, Maduro could remain in power for months if not years.
On April 2, the government took the first step to justify Guaido's arrest by stripping the opposition leader of his legal immunity. Maduro had been reluctant to go directly after Guaido — likely in fear of heavier sanctions or military intervention from the United States, and the resulting threat this would pose to the unity of his military commanders. Thus, such a bold move signifies that Maduro and his inner circle are gambling they can mitigate the effect of heavier sanctions on military unity by cracking down on key opposition figureheads, such as Guaido and those close to him, and dissident military forces. With Guaido in jail, military dissidents cowed into submission, and military commanders willing to repress political opponents, Maduro's government could remain in power for at least several more months, if not years.
The looming 2020 presidential election in the United States could also play a role in determining when and how soon Maduro makes his exit. Incumbent President Donald Trump has prioritized regime change in Venezuela. Should Trump fail to secure a second term in 2020, his successor might be less willing to bet on an opposition bid.
Of course, just because a delayed Maduro departure is becoming more likely doesn't make it inevitable. A covert push by lower-ranking military officers to remove Maduro could still prove successful, as could the opposition's efforts to sway higher-ranking commanders to join their side. And the country's increasingly dire economic situation and rapidly crumbling infrastructure — which recently manifested in a monthlong series of nationwide blackouts — could also fuel more riots and crackdowns in poorer neighborhoods and, in turn, spur certain military commanders to split from the government.
But as it stands, what seems most certain is that Maduro's government is gearing up for a crackdown that could possibly result in Guaido's arrest or extradition. Absent a viable opposition figure to seize the presidency, Maduro's armed forces will be even less likely to leave his side. And as a result, the United States will find its path to removing the Venezuelan president largely blocked off — that is, barring direct military intervention.