Date
February 05, 2019
Juan Guaidó has emerged as the face of the opposition effort to topple President Nicolás Maduro. Photo: Molina86/ShutterStock

Widespread unrest due to Venezuela's ongoing political crisis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó plans to continue calling for major protests to increase pressure on President Nicolás Maduro to resign. Meanwhile, spontaneous, small-scale demonstrations in low-income and middle-class neighborhoods will continue for the duration of the crisis. Protests are likely to be met with force, including lethal force, by police and military personnel. International pressure against Maduro will likely deepen the economic crisis, leading to more frequent power cuts as well as food and fuel shortages. Increased looting of private businesses remains possible. A military uprising against Maduro cannot be ruled out, although such a revolt would be uncertain to succeed and could result in protracted violence. International tensions between those who recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president and those who continue to back Maduro are likely to escalate but are unlikely to devolve into serious conflict. Whether Maduro's government remains in power or not, unrest is likely to continue for weeks.

 

Key Judgments

  • The political crisis in Venezuela is likely to continue indefinitely, with an escalation of the scale and tempo of the anti-Maduro protests as well as the heavy-handedness of the government's response.
  • A military insurrection is possible, given the numerous mutinies and arrests of dissident military personnel in recent months.
  • International economic sanctions against Maduro are likely to hurt the Venezuelan economy, especially following the US sanctions against the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A (PDVSA); food, medicine, and fuel shortages, already a major problem in the country, are likely to deepen, with increased likelihood of looting and violence.
  • An international confrontation is unlikely, despite rising tensions between governments supporting Guaidó - including the US, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, UK - and those supporting Maduro, especially China, Russia, and Turkey.

 

Background on the Political Crisis in Venezuela

The political crisis unfolding in Venezuela is a direct result of the presidential election of May 2018. Most major opposition parties did not participate in that election, denouncing the process as fraudulent following the arrest and forced exile of numerous opposition leaders and the banning of many other potential candidates. President Maduro was re-elected, and his second term was scheduled to begin Jan. 10. However, given that the opposition did not recognize the election, the opposition-led National Assembly on Jan. 15 declared Maduro a usurper of the presidency. On Jan. 23, based on an article of the Constitution stating that the president of the National Assembly should assume the presidency temporarily if it is vacant, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó announced that he considered himself the interim president of Venezuela.

The immediate international support Guaidó received from the US, Canada, most Latin American countries, and some European countries also originated in the 2018 election. More than 50 countries joined the Venezuelan opposition in declaring that election fraudulent and refused to recognize the results.
 

The Resurgence of the Anti-Maduro Movement

Despite a severe economic crisis, with inflation estimated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) at 1.3 million percent in 2018, as well as food and medicine shortages, the Venezuelan government appeared stable at the start of 2019. Government repression and infighting among political parties had reduced the opposition's ability to challenge Maduro. After widespread protests in 2017 left more than 100 protesters dead and an unsuccessful negotiation process with the government failed to prevent the 2018 election, opposition supporters were left disappointed and leaderless, further weakening the protest movement.

Despite its difficulties, the anti-Maduro coalition fulfilled an agreement made in 2015 in which each of the four major parties would hold the presidency of the National Assembly for a year. On Jan. 5, Popular Will (Voluntad Popular, VP) was assigned to take over the presidency, and Guaidó was the party's nominee. Immediately, the National Assembly reaffirmed its rejection of Maduro's new term, and its leaders called for public gatherings throughout the country along with a nationwide protest Jan. 23. Guaidó, mostly unknown among average Venezuelans until then, was perceived as a fresh face for the opposition, and the proposal of considering Maduro illegitimate gained widespread support, sending thousands of people to the streets. A botched arrest of Guaidó on Jan. 15, in which he was briefly held by the intelligence service, raised his profile further. On Jan. 23, in the middle of a demonstration in Caracas attended by hundreds of thousands of people, Guaidó announced he would take on the role of interim president.

Maduro and several institutions loyal to him - including the Supreme Court - have threatened Guaidó with arrest, but he remains free. Anti-Maduro protests continue to draw tens of thousands of people, including in low-income neighborhoods that have previously been bastions of support for the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, PSUV). Meanwhile, the National Assembly continues to move forward in its support for the interim government by publicizing bills regarding amnesty for the military, a reformed electoral body, and a transitional government.
 

International Support for the National Assembly

President Nicolás Maduro

International support for Venezuela's National Assembly has been a key element of the current attempt to remove Maduro from office. Many Latin American countries are now governed by conservatives with an acrimonious relationship with Maduro. This shift, combined with discontent over Maduro's authoritarian policies, Venezuela's ongoing economic crisis, and the massive wave of Venezuelan migration affecting numerous countries, has led most Latin American countries to declare their support for Maduro's ouster. Their support comes from the Lima Group, an organization of 14 Latin American and Caribbean countries and Canada, created in 2017 with the mission of restoring democracy in Venezuela. The US government also quickly backed the National Assembly's recent decision to declare Maduro illegitimate and recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president. The EU did not recognize Maduro's re-election and has maintained its support for the National Assembly. Several European governments, including Germany, the UK, France, Spain, and Portugal, have also recognized Guaidó's claim to the presidency. The EU launched a contact group with several Latin American countries to find a solution in the next 90 days that would lead to new, internationally monitored elections.

The US, Canada, Panama, Mexico, the EU, and Switzerland have imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions targeting high-ranking officials in the Venezuelan government and military. On Jan. 29, the US announced new sanctions on PDVSA, the state-owned oil company. This decision will likely have severe economic consequences for Venezuela. Around 95 percent of all exports from Venezuela are oil related, and more than 40 percent of the government's revenue comes from them. Exports to the US represented one of few sources of cash for Venezuela, since exports to China and Russia are mostly to repay debts.

On the other hand, China, Russia, and Turkey have maintained their support for Maduro, declaring the US and others' responses to the crisis as interventionist. Despite increasing tensions, the removal of Maduro would not lead to an international military confrontation, nor would it severely damage relations between China and the US. In that scenario, Maduro's allies - especially China - would likely look to build relations with the new government due to the large debts the Venezuelan state maintains with Chinese companies.

 

Venezuelan Government Response

Contrary to previous crises, Maduro's government has responded slowly and appears to lack a clear strategy to extract itself from the situation. The attempt to arrest Guaidó demonstrated divisions within the ruling coalition and increased the political costs of attempting to arrest him in the future. Members of the administration have threatened to definitively dismantle the National Assembly, but these threats have not been implemented. Maduro has spoken of the possibility of a dialogue with the opposition; previous talks have produced nothing of substance but have served to temporarily reduce unrest. Repression against the protests has been even more forceful than in the past, with a special focus on the intimidation of low-income neighborhoods - which have been, until recently, key areas of support for the government.

The Supreme Court remains the main civilian institution supporting Maduro, but the military's loyalty is the reason he is still in power. Venezuela's military leadership has made numerous public displays of support for Maduro, and rank-and-file officers have followed orders to respond forcefully to demonstrators. However, since 2017, military and police personnel made at least four attempts to remove Maduro, highlighting the discontent among many officials. Intelligence agencies have been key to the stability of the government, thwarting several plans to remove Maduro by force. Due to numerous human rights abuses, widespread reports of corruption, mismanagement, and even drug-trafficking, members of military leadership appear to have tied Maduro's future to their own, fearing loss of power or imprisonment under a different administration. The opposition has sought to alleviate this fear and encourage military defections by floating amnesty for military personnel.

 

Outlook

Protests organized by Guaidó and the National Assembly are likely to continue to draw tens of thousands of people, and events in some major cities will likely see turnout in the hundreds of thousands. Scattered protests will likely continue in low-income and middle-class neighborhoods and along major highways and inter-city roads, especially at night. Widespread looting has not been reported, but it remains very likely that some businesses will be attacked in the coming weeks, especially once the sanctions on PDVSA begin to affect the general population. So far, attacks against companies from countries that have backed Guaidó have been minimal.
 
Small-scale military uprisings are possible and will likely be contained by pro-Maduro forces. However, any such mutiny has the potential to ignite others throughout the country. bring the highest levels of violence in the country. While major clashes between military units could occur, the biggest threat would come from pro-government civilian armed groups, which could unleash a wave of violence as a last resort to defend Maduro's administration. An organized transition of power would significantly reduce the possibility of violence, and protests would likely subdue after few weeks. If Maduro can overcome the crisis, unrest will likely reappear later in the year due to the deep economic crisis and the widespread popular rejection of the current administration.

A foreign military intervention remains very unlikely. Despite some statements by US government officials threatening some form of intervention, most governments opposing Maduro have unmistakably rejected the option, which would severely escalate economic problems and the migration crisis in the region.

 

Widespread Unrest for Foreseeable Future

Widespread unrest due to Venezuela's ongoing political crisis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó plans to continue calling for major protests to increase pressure on President Nicolás Maduro to resign. Meanwhile, spontaneous, small-scale demonstrations in low-income and middle-class neighborhoods will continue for the duration of the crisis. Protests are likely to be met with force, including lethal force, by police and military personnel. International pressure against Maduro will likely deepen the economic crisis, leading to more frequent power cuts as well as food and fuel shortages. Increased looting of private businesses remains possible. A military uprising against Maduro cannot be ruled out, although such a revolt would be uncertain to succeed and could result in protracted violence. International tensions between those who recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president and those who continue to back Maduro are likely to escalate but are unlikely to devolve into serious conflict. Whether Maduro's government remains in power or not, unrest is likely to continue for weeks.
 

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