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Venezuela's Friends and Foes Square Off Over Maduro

8 MINS READJan 26, 2019 | 16:39 GMT
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, left, meet at the Revolution Palace in Havana on April 21, 2018.
(ERNESTO MASTRASCUSA/AFP/Getty Images)

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, left, meet in Havana on April 21, 2018. The United States wants Maduro gone from power, but countries like Cuba will pull out all the stops to slow his departure.

Highlights
  • Russia, China and Cuba will attempt to keep Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in office while the United States and its allies in Venezuela's political opposition ratchet up pressure to hasten his departure.
  • Havana and Moscow will become directly involved in trying to safeguard or prolong Maduro's rule.
  • Brazil and Colombia will work to force Maduro from power, but their ability to pressure Caracas will be limited compared to that of the United States.
  • Events on the ground, as well as Maduro's ability to keep Venezuela's armed forces on his side, will determine whether the leader stays in place or soon leaves power.
  • A formal negotiation period could delay Maduro's removal, so the opposition will try to win over as many military commanders and soldiers as possible in the short term.

The widespread international recognition of Juan Guaido as the legitimate interim successor to Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela has raised the stakes for Venezuelans — as well as nations with an interest in the troubled South American country. Those nations, chief among them the United States, Russia, China, Cuba, Brazil and Colombia, are sharply split between those that favor Maduro's rapid departure and those that — for largely financial and economic reasons — would prefer him to remain in place. Whatever their respective reasons, both camps will endeavor to mold events in Venezuela in their favor. For its part, the United States will rely on a combination of sanctions pressure and opposition demonstrations to turn key members of the armed forces against Maduro. But countries that have close ties with the current government will do everything in their power to delay — if not outright avert — Maduro's departure from power.

The Big Picture

The political crisis in Venezuela is domestic in origin but global in importance. Though Venezuela's geopolitical significance has declined in recent decades, it remains key to countries with specific interests in it — for financial, energy or security reasons. Some of these countries, such as Cuba, Russia and China, would prefer that President Nicolas Maduro remain in power. A new government would affect Moscow, Havana and Beijing, as a change could upset oil shipments and loan repayments. Russia and Cuba will seek to prolong Maduro's tenure for as long as possible to protect their interests.

Fighting to Delay Maduro's Exit

The nation with the strongest short-term motivation for keeping Maduro in power is Cuba, which wants to maintain the status quo in Caracas to safeguard its own future political stability. After all, Cuba's gradual transition away from highly personalistic communist rule is going to be difficult enough without losing access to free Venezuelan fuel and crude oil shipments. Cuba currently receives about 50,000 barrels per day of fuel and crude oil from Venezuela — a figure that accounts for about a third of the island's consumption. The threat of losing these shipments is a serious one, as any new government in Caracas trying to maximize its oil export revenue and attract more foreign direct investment would likely reduce or entirely cease oil shipments to Cuba.

The Cuban government has significant military and intelligence assets at its disposal to keep Maduro in power. For nearly two decades, the Cuban government has assisted the Venezuelan state in military training and intelligence sharing on foreign and domestic targets. Venezuela's internal security services work closely with Cuba to closely monitor domestic political opponents. Though Havana may have already determined that Maduro's exit from power is just a matter of time, the island will make it its mission to delay that departure. To accomplish this, it might choose to deploy additional security forces to bolster the Venezuelan government's military and intelligence gathering capabilities. Nevertheless, Cuba is a comparatively small actor in Venezuela, meaning it will be powerless to turn the tide if key officials who head Venezuela's geographical military districts turn their guns on Maduro.

Russia also has no desire to see Maduro go quickly, though for far less immediate reasons. Like the oil gifted to Cuba, Venezuela's opposition does not view Caracas' loan agreements with Russia and China as legitimate, suggesting that a new government would significantly reduce or end oil-for-loan programs as part of reforms in the energy sector. As it is, Maduro's government has fallen far behind on payments to Russian lenders like Rosneft and others. Rosneft's CEO even rebuked Maduro privately two months ago because Caracas has paid Russia only about 40 percent of the 380,000 barrels per day of crude oil it owes. China, by contrast, was receiving about 460,000 barrels per day, or 60 percent of what Caracas owes to Beijing.

Maduro's fall would rob Moscow of an ally it can use to increase strategic pressure on the United States.

Aside from the possibility of a new Venezuelan government defaulting on Russian loans, Moscow has a strategic interest in the country. Venezuela fits neatly into Russia's global strategy of using even geopolitically minor conflicts to maintain strategic pressure on the United States. For nearly a decade, Russia flirted with the idea of establishing a more permanent strategic bomber presence in Venezuela. Maduro's fall would rob Moscow of an ally it can use to increase strategic pressure on the United States, meaning steps to keep the president in power will become a growing priority for Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to a report on Jan. 25, more Russian private military contractors have made their way to Caracas, possibly to increase personal security for Maduro. By using its forces to directly bolster the government, Moscow would complicate the Venezuelan military's attempts to overthrow Maduro and could even use the troops as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the United States on other strategic issues.

But of all the foreign powers with an interest in Venezuela, China likely faces the most financial exposure to the collapse of the Maduro government. Venezuela still owes China around $23 billion in loans that it is paying back with crude oil exports. At present, more than half of Venezuela's daily crude oil production goes directly toward repaying Chinese and Russian loans — making it likely that a new government would default on these agreements in its search for ways to bolster government revenue through oil exports. The rise of a pro-U.S. government in Venezuela would naturally cloud the prospects of Chinese military sales to Venezuela. Much of Caracas' military equipment comes from China, but a Venezuelan alliance with the United States would slowly shift the government's military procurement focus toward Washington. Still, the Chinese government is far less likely to directly intervene in Venezuela than Cuba or Russia, as such a step would hurt its trade relations with the United States at a delicate time and fly in the face of Beijing's overarching diplomatic focus on non-interference.

Fighting to Hasten Maduro's Exit

Arrayed against Cuba, Russia and China are Brazil and Colombia, two of Venezuela's neighbors that will adopt an ever-increasing role to tilt the country's balance of power away from Maduro. Brasilia and Bogota's interests in handing Venezuela to opposition rule are clear: Maduro's rule precipitated a food crisis that has forced millions of Venezuelans to seek relief in Colombia and Brazil. Caracas' support for illicit activities, such as militancy, drug trafficking and illegal mining, have also strengthened criminal groups in both countries. Thus, as Washington raises pressure on Caracas, Bogota and Brasilia are likely to do the same. The two neighbors, however, have less leverage over Caracas because they consume virtually no oil or refined products from Venezuela, while they possess almost no international clout that would allow them to impose punishing sanctions without assistance from the United States. Accordingly, they will likely follow the United States' lead in the coming weeks and months as they seek to achieve their aims.

In the near future, Venezuela's political situation will evolve largely in accordance with events on the ground. The United States and its opposition allies will try to raise pressure on military forces to switch sides against the government — if Washington doesn't engage in direct military intervention.

As the opposition tries to persuade military units and commanders to turn on the president, offers of amnesty will be crucial. As head of the National Assembly, Guaido can press his claim to the presidency by negotiating and offering to approve amnesty legislation toward blanket pardons or some sort of amnesty mechanism. The existence of such proposals — backed by guarantees that the United States will not enforce extradition requests against certain military commanders and political elites — will make it more likely that Venezuelan elites could consider a transition of power. Such an approach may bring enough commanders to the opposition's side to swiftly oust Maduro, but the incumbent still wields enough political and military influence to resist. He is likely to use any negotiations to buy time to stake his claim to the presidency (indeed, his foreign allies are likely to advise it). Such delays may keep him in power longer, but they could also intensify the violence of the protests and persuade dissidents in the armed forces to mount their own challenges.

Given Venezuela's tailspin, the likelihood of Maduro making an orderly departure is low. His exit, instead, is more likely to be violent and chaotic, as he has no desire to abandon power and his key domestic and foreign allies wish to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. Even if the opposition and government agree to formal offers to negotiate, the former will want to sit down for such talks with as strong a hand as possible. It's also a case of once bitten, twice shy: Maduro has previously roped his opponents into fruitless negotiations, so his opponents will be wary of entering any new negotiations. For such talks to succeed, or even advance beyond the initial stages, they would require strong backing from key military officials or from the defense minister himself. Without their support, the situation in Venezuela will slide toward open insurrection, raising the prospect of more violence as Maduro's opponents square off against security forces intent on maintaining his rule.

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