Beginning the Endgame in Venezuela

Military officers loyal to Maduro likely understand that, whether his regime falls in 2019 or 2020, it is running out of money and time.

The Maduro regime on the brink

Venezuela is at a tipping point in which perceptions are critically important to outcomes. Military officers loyal to Maduro likely understand that, whether his regime falls in 2019 or 2020, it is running out of money and time. Their calculus is thus arguably shifting from inaction driven by fear of the consequences if Maduro’s regime falls, to finding the best “off ramp” before it does. To the extent that they believe Guaidó will prevail, joining him will make them part of the patriotic forces that risked their lives to defend the Venezuelan constitution, democracy, and the will of its people, rather than ending as criminals tried for their crimes, or subjected to street justice by angry Venezuelans. Given Guaidó’s likely success, the National Assembly’s possible offer of amnesty is the military’s best “off-ramp” to preserve their liberty, and possibly part of their illicit earnings. Accordingly, the defection of a significant portion of Venezuela’s armed forces from Maduro to Guaidó will cement the latter’s successful restoration of democracy to the country. On the other hand, if the military calculates that Guaidó will not succeed, declaring loyalty to his government could be a death sentence; the critical mass of the Venezuelan armed forces will not publicly support Guaidó, and in the near term, his efforts will fall short.

In short, in this critical moment, who wins in Venezuela depends largely on who the military and other key actors believe will win. To its credit, the Trump administration has demonstrated its commitment to a positive outcome in the current struggle. Many key players in Venezuela and the international community have not taken this level of commitment into consideration in their own actions. The strong statements in support of Guaidó’s government by President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and National Security Advisor Bolton, among others, plus coordination behind the scenes with representatives of the Grupo de Lima, the Organization of American States, and even the United Nations Security Council, demonstrate that the U.S. is fully engaged and determined to see the conflict through to a successful conclusion.

The expanding group of governments recognizing the Guaidó government, including virtually all of the principal states of the Western Hemisphere, and other key states outside it from Great Britain to Israel, illustrate a growing consensus within the international community to finally put an end to the affront that the Maduro regime represents to democracy, responsible government, human rights, and the international order. The ultimatum to Maduro from Spain and the European Union demanding a call for legitimate elections within eight days, highlights the difficulty of the bloc to take decisive action. Nonetheless, Maduro’s brutish rejection of the demand gives Europe the political cover to do what it could not otherwise: support decisive action against the Maduro regime.

Such international positions go beyond mere critical words; domestic courts of law are generally obliged to follow the positions of their governments. With the United Kingdom’s recognition of Guaidó as the official leader of Venezuela, for example, Guaidó’s government has petitioned the Bank of England, to grant it (rather than the former Maduro regime) access to the $1.3 billion in gold in Venezuela’s official accounts. New sanctions against the Venezuelan oil company PdVSA, announced January 28 by the Trump administration, do not technically stop the U.S. from buying Venezuelan oil, but rather, stop payments to Maduro’s regime for that oil, since the U.S. government does not recognize the regime as the legal representative of Venezuela. With U.S. support, Guaidó has correspondingly appointed new boards of directors not only for PdVSA, but also its U.S.-based affiliate CITGO, as well as other Venezuelan assets abroad, over which it has announced it is “assuming control in an orderly fashion.” The sanctions against PdVSA alone could cut in half the cash flow that the Maduro regime relies upon to feed and otherwise pay off the military, and less disciplined pro-government private armed groups such as the


With respect to the security situation, the Guaidó government’s counter to Maduro’s demand for U.S. diplomats to leave the country demonstrates a promising level of thoughtfulness about the complex game of “chess” now being played, and suggests coordination between

Guaidó’s government and the United States. While putting U.S. diplomats in a vulnerable situation is certainly not typical practice, the move creates a dilemma for Maduro. Given the high levels of discontent believed to exist within the Venezuelan military, if he orders the military into action against U.S. diplomats, with the U.S. having warned in unequivocal terms of a response, Maduro risks provoking a split in the ranks of the Venezuelan armed forces, as they contemplate whether they are actually willing to risk their lives in the final stages of a losing battle to defend an illegitimate dictator and a corrupt chain of command, after having already silently watched the suffering of Venezuelans who are, after all, their own family members and neighbors. On the other hand, if Maduro does not act, members of his inner circle could conclude that he no longer has the confidence of the military and, in desperation, turn on Maduro to save themselves, also precipitating the downfall of his regime. Maduro’s gesture to give U.S. diplomats 30 days to leave likely reflects the regime’s assessment that attempting to deploy troops in a show of force against the embassy or other targets named as protected by the U.S. government would lead to mass defections that could ultimately promote the downfall of the regime.

Adding to military unrest, the declaration of loyalty to Guaidó by Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, may have been motivated by a desire to avoid having to return to Caracas. His public turn likely has caused discomfort among Maduro’s defense officials, both because it highlights how other key officers could make such decisions for personal interest, and because of likely concern about what Silva knew about the Venezuelan military situation, and what he may now have shared with Guaidó as his new commander-in-chief, or with the United States.

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Dr. R. Evan Ellis is Latin America research professor with the U.S.

Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views advanced here

are strictly his own.