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Venezuela's Vying Suitors Update Their Game Plans

8 MINS READMay 3, 2019 | 04:30 GMT
Juan Guaido, leader of the political opposition movement in Venezuela, greets supporters at a demonstration on May 1, 2019.
(Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images)

On April 30, opposition leader Juan Guaido called for an uprising to remove Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from power.

Highlights
  • With Venezuelan military officials' support for an opposition-led uprising in doubt, the United States will pursue tighter economic sanctions on Venezuela as its main strategy to force President Nicolas Maduro from power. 
  • Washington might also try to enlist the help of Colombia and Brazil to directly intervene in Venezuela, though both countries will be hesitant to do so for fear of political backlash and retaliation from pro-Maduro insurgents.
  • To deter Cuba's support for the Maduro government, the United States will also increase sanctions pressure on Havana, but it's unlikely the Cuban government will cave due to its reliance on Venezuelan crude oil. 
  • Russia, meanwhile, will focus on bolstering its military presence in Venezuela — creating a strategic foothold in Washington's backyard amid the two countries' great power competition.

Following the political opposition's attempted April 30 uprising, foreign powers with a sizable stake in Venezuela's political future — namely, the United States, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, China and Cuba — have almost certaintly begun updating their game plans. The former three remain the core group of countries backing opposition leader Juan Guaido's push to force Maduro from the presidency, though the United States has taken a much more active role in doing so compared with Colombia and Brazil. And the latter three all have reasons for keeping President Nicolas Maduro — or some other compliant leader — in power: for Russia, it's obtaining a military foothold in the United States' backyard amid the two countries' ongoing power competition; for Cuba, it's keeping lines to Venezuelan crude oil and fuels open; and for China, it's ensuring Caracas makes good on its outstanding loans. 

The Big Picture

Venezuela's government deflected the attempted uprising on April 30, but run-ins with the opposition are far from over. And now, suitors backing both sides of the country's political crisis are now working to recalibrate their plans. On the pro-opposition side, the United States will find itself with little option but to tighten the economic noose around Caracas even more. Meanwhile, the main allies of President Nicolas Maduro — Russia and Cuba — will seize the opportunity to strengthen their stronghold in Venezuela. 

These countries with a stake in Venezuela will press forward with enacting their own visions for Caracas in the coming weeks and months. But the opposition's failed uprising attempt has now stacked the cards higher than ever against a swift regime change. Therefore, stakeholders with ties to Venezuela — especially those in its energy sector — should prepare for yet another round of U.S. sanctions, as Washington scrambles to turn Maduro's military against him. But if the past week's events have illuminated anything, it's that sanctions have yet to prove effective in bringing the country's armed forces to the opposition's side — making Maduro's extended rule increasingly likely. 

Guaido's Allies: The United States, Colombia and Brazil 

Should Guaido fail in his current bid for control, the Maduro government will begin cracking down on his political allies within the military establishment. Dissidents will be removed from their positions of power and, in certain cases, either be imprisoned or closely surveilled. At that point, the United States will have few options within Venezuela to keep the possibility of a swift Maduro departure alive. 

To raise the likelihood of military officials turning against Maduro in the wake of a failed uprising attempt, Washington will, once again increase economic pressure on Caracas, which it can easily and quickly do through the Treasury Department. In doing so, Washington hopes to choke off Venezuela's sole source of meaningful export revenue: oil. This will almost certainly mean secondary sanctions that target international companies involved in financial transactions with Venezuela's energy sector. 

However, the actual toll on the country's energy sector will depend largely on what kinds of sanctions Washington settles on and how swiftly the U.S. can roll them out. The United States may choose, for example, to limit trade in diluents to Venezuela, which would likely contribute to an even steeper production decline than would otherwise happen. Washington may also threaten sanctions on refiners of Venezuelan crude, such as India's Reliance, if they do not reduce or cease imports of Venezuelan oil.

If anything, the recent events in Venezuela illuminate that U.S. sanctions have yet to prove effective in turning Maduro's armed forces against him.

Direct action to weaken and remove Maduro will be more difficult to implement, though. A Maduro-led crackdown on the security forces and opposition would rob the United States of both the institutions and people it needs to enact political change in Venezuela. Military intervention to directly remove Maduro is also highly unlikely at this point, as it would be logistically complicated, expensive and have few direct benefits for the United States. But the White House has still refused to publicly rule it out — namely because it remains a potent threat to wield against Caracas. 

However, the United States may try to indirectly intervene by organizing and funding militants in Colombia and Brazil to conduct hit-and-run raids in neighboring Venezuela. Neither country will be eager to host such activity, however, for fear of backlash from domestic constituents or from the Venezuelan government. Colombia and Brazil are the regional states most heavily affected by Venezuela's economic and political crises. But their options for directly bringing about regime change in Venezuela are limited. Though Brazil and Colombia's presidents have publicly voiced their support for a change of leadership in Venezuela, their desires for a political transition will not easily translate into action. 

For Colombia, taking steps to more directly threaten Venezuela's government — such as hosting dissident guerrilla forces — could invite retaliation from Maduro's political allies in the National Liberation Army, likely in the form of increased attacks on oil infrastructure in Colombia.

While in Brazil, divisions on foreign policy between President Bolsonaro and his more centrist officials — namely, Vice President Hamilton Maourao — will continue to keep Brasilia from taking a more interventionist stance toward Venezuela as well. Thus, for both U.S. allies, the costs of greater intervention in Venezuela outweigh the benefits. As a result, their role in the crisis will continue to be more passive than active, serving as facilitators for U.S. efforts to remove Maduro rather than instigators. 

Maduro's Allies: Russia and Cuba

In the wake of a failed uprising, the limitations of Washington and its two top allies will clearly play into the hands of Russia and Cuba — the two foreign powers that are most deeply involved in keeping Maduro in power. Because Cuba is a key Venezuelan security partner, the Trump administration will try to pressure Havana to pull its support for the Maduro government by threatening heavier sanctions. This could potentially include a complete rollback of the 2014 executive order that allowed more U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, which has since boosted the country's tourism sector. However, such an approach is unlikely to quickly yield results. 

Cuba's interest in Venezuela is largely driven by the imperative to keep its government afloat. Havana's power plants and vehicles run on subsidized oil and fuel from Caracas. It also receives refined products, such as gasoline and diesel, from the South American country. In addition to cutting off these lifelines, negotiating a reduction of support for Caracas could give way to other unwelcome demands from Washington as well, such as instilling free elections. As a result, the Cuban government will have few incentives to change its course on Venezuela in the short term, even if it means facing increased U.S. sanctions.

A failed uprising attempt could all but ensure an extended Maduro regime by limiting Washington's options for regime change, while bolstering those of the Caracas' allies.

Russia, meanwhile, will seize the opportunity of a failed uprising attempt to reinforce its position in Venezuela, likely by strengthening efforts to advise the Venezuelan government and improve the capabilities of its military and security forces wherever possible. Aside from its presence in Venezuela's energy sector, the key factor driving Russian efforts to keep Maduro's government intact remains its ongoing competition with the United States. 

As it's done in Syria and Ukraine, the Russian government will try to push back against U.S.-led efforts to extend Washington's influence by increasing its military presence in the country. Moscow has various options at its disposal to do so, including upping the frequency of military cooperation missions and the near-permanent basing of strategic bombers. Such moves would give Moscow a military foothold — albeit limited — near the continental United States. This, in turn, would force Washington to adjust its attention and resources away from Russia's affairs elsewhere to the new threat brewing in its own backyard.  

Somewhere Inbetween: China

China also has a stake in Venezuela's political future. But unlike Cuba and Russia, its interests in Venezuela are less focused on regime survival or geopolitical competition. When it comes to Venezuela, Beijing's main concern is restructuring the country's debt to ensure that any future government — regardless of who it's led by — can keep making payments on the $23 billion in outstanding loans Caracas currently owes to China.

A nascent opposition government would be wary of alienating China as a customer and benefactor, so it would likely entertain Chinese demands for debt restructuring. China has recently sent representatives to meet with Guaido's officials, likely to discuss what such a restructuring would look like under an opposition government. However, should the opposition's rise to power appear less feasible, China would probably just as eagerly pursue the same discussions with Maduro to protect its bottom line.

Of course, it is still plausible that the military commanders that backed out of Guaido's latest uprising attempt will participate in another attempt down the line. But that is far from certain. And the apparent lack of military support Guaido has been able to garner for his planned uprising indicates senior officials are still reluctant to back the opposition's efforts — leaving the United States with little choice but to continue relying on economic sanctions to see its push for regime change in Venezuela through. 

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