Four months ago, a revitalized Venezuelan opposition launched an audacious plan to force the embattled Nicolás Maduro from power. With the backing of Washington, most of its Latin American neighbors, and various European states, it declared the newly elected chair of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, the country’s legitimate, interim president. Calling on the military to switch sides, Guaidó proposed a three-point solution to Venezuela’s acute political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. First, Maduro must go; then a “transitional government” would be installed; and finally, fresh elections would be held under international supervision.
The Trump administration, which had worked with hardliners in the opposition as they framed the plan, announced a drastic new sanctions regime aimed at cutting off the oil revenue on which the Maduro government depends for most of its hard-currency earnings. It pointedly refused to rule out military intervention as a last resort, despite the almost universal opposition to such a move among its allies. It threatened dire consequences if Guaidó were to be harmed or imprisoned, and insisted senior figures in the Venezuelan armed forces were negotiating under pressure of individual sanctions.
That plan, however, appears to have failed. Guaidó himself, a previously almost unknown politician who has shown an unexpected capacity for leadership and retains high approval ratings, has done his best. Despite several missteps, his personal credibility has enabled the opposition to stage repeated, nationwide mass rallies. And his ability to hold together the fractious opposition coalition has defied expectations. But the challenge of maintaining mobilization in the absence of concrete results is beginning to tell. Maduro’s calculation that he could sit it out and wait for the opposition bubble to burst appears to have paid off.
The plan hinged on the ability of the opposition and its U.S. ally to persuade the military to break with Maduro. Briefly, on April 30, it seemed as if they had succeeded: The country’s most famous political prisoner (and chief architect of the plan), Leopoldo López, was sprung from house arrest by orders of intelligence (Sebin) chief General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher. Together with Guaidó, a member of López’s Voluntad Popular party, he appeared at a Caracas air base, claiming to have military backing and calling supporters into the streets. But the military support never materialized, the uprising was easily quashed, and López ended up seeking refuge with the Spanish ambassador.
The opposition has tried to put a brave face on the fiasco, arguing that the defection of Cristopher and the evidence of plotting in the military has fatally weakened Maduro. The president may indeed not sleep easily. But the incident has provided the perfect excuse for a renewed crackdown on the opposition, led by General Gustavo González López, whom Cristopher had succeeded last year after a politician died in Sebin custody and who has now been reappointed to his old job. In the last few days alone, 14 opposition legislators have been accused by the government-controlled Supreme Court of crimes ranging from treason to fomenting hatred.
At the time of writing, four have gone into hiding, two have fled the country, and four more have taken refuge in diplomatic residences. Edgar Zambrano, the deputy chair of the Assembly, who had locked himself in his car to avoid arrest by Sebin agents, was towed away inside the vehicle. His whereabouts and state of health, and those of another jailed MP, Gilber Caro, are uncertain. With the exception of Guaidó himself, the entire top leadership of Voluntad Popular is underground, in exile, or under diplomatic protection. MP Luis Florido, who had taken over as his chief of staff after the detention of his predecessor Roberto Marrero, has been forced into exile.
With all his closest collaborators out of action, Maduro may calculate, the man the opposition and its allies regard as the interim president of Venezuela will sink into virtual irrelevance.
Publicly, what remains of the opposition leadership is sticking to its three-point plan. In a bizarre move, Guaidó has tasked his diplomatic representative in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, with seeking “collaboration” from U.S. Southern Command, in an apparent bid to revive the threat of military intervention. He has called on the International Contact Group, comprising several member states of the European Union, plus Uruguay, Bolivia, and Costa Rica, to back the demand that Maduro step down, rather than seeking to create the conditions for negotiations leading to fresh elections, as the Group’s mandate stipulates.
Privately, however, the opposition is beginning to doubt the commitment of Washington to do whatever it takes to force Maduro out. Its external allies, meanwhile, are frustrated and nonplussed by a series of apparently avoidable errors that seem to stem from an overestimation of its own strength and an underestimation of the government’s resilience.
There is a growing sense among both allies and adversaries of the opposition that negotiation is the only realistic path given the country’s dire and worsening economic straits, and the impossibility of outright victory for either government or Guaidó. Demanding Maduro’s resignation or ouster is increasingly unrealistic as a precondition for any transition. Since April 30, the Lima Group of Latin American nations (plus Canada), which while ruling out force, has essentially backed the Guaidó plan, has sought a closer relationship with the Contact Group. China has also spoken favorably of the Contact Group, and even Maduro’s closest ally, Cuba, which had hitherto refused to become involved, has offered support for “dialogue.” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have held two meetings at which Venezuela was a key agenda point.
That said, neither side in Venezuela has much appetite for negotiation. The government, which feels it has won an important battle, if not the war, continues to propose open-ended “dialogue,” which has led nowhere in the past. The opposition fears being forced to make too many concessions and being accused of treachery by more intransigent elements who want nothing less than outright regime change. It still hopes that the collapse of the economy, hastened by sanctions, will force Maduro out.
But there is no “winner-take-all” solution in Venezuela. Both sides will have to make painful concessions if an agreement is to be reached. The only way they are likely to do that is if their respective allies can themselves come together to provide the necessary guarantees and a framework for substantive talks leading to the formation of a transitional government in which both sides—as well as, crucially, the military—are assigned a role. This would be followed by an internationally supervised election. The question of who holds executive power during the transition will have to be a point on the agenda, not a precondition for sitting at the table.
Time is short. Before too long there may no longer be a functional opposition leadership in the country. Venezuelans are suffering a severe economic contraction and basic public services are collapsing. Maduro may withstand the pressure, or the armed forces, having realized that they are indispensable to any transition, may decide to organize it themselves by installing someone more to their liking. Alternatively, hostilities might escalate to the point of armed conflict or external military intervention. While compromise between Venezuelans and commitment to a negotiated outcome by foreign allies of both sides may not meet the full democratic aspirations of the opposition, holding out for the government to fall brings risks too great to countenance.