What We Heard in Caracas
Trump opened the door for change in Venezuela. Now he risks closing it.
It’s hard for the two sides in Venezuela’s political conflict to agree on virtually anything, what with dueling presidents, competing institutions, and diametrically opposed visions. But in a brief visit to Caracas this week, we found broad consensus on one point: It all depends on Donald Trump.
The Venezuelan crisis is not new. President Nicolás Maduro and those immediately around him bear primary responsibility: They’ve badly mismanaged the country, trampled its democratic institutions, stage-managed elections, benefited from massive corruption, and brutally repressed protesters. The consequences are plain to see, if almost impossible to fathom. Although Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, its economy is in free fall.
The country faces widespread poverty, malnutrition, and diseases that not long ago had been eradicated. At least 3 million of its citizens—probably far more—have fled, to Colombia and elsewhere. The two sides engaged in various rounds of negotiations, but the political situation reached an impasse. The government stripped the opposition-dominated National Assembly of any power; the bulk of the opposition boycotted the presidential elections and refused to recognize the newly reelected president.
Enter the Trump administration. Working with leading opposition members and building on growing popular unrest, it worked out a straightforward strategy: Recognize Juan Guaidó, chairman of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president; grant him international support as well as access to foreign oil revenues and assets; impose crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector; and convince Venezuela’s military and other key regime constituencies that they have everything to lose by backing Maduro, and much to gain by lining up behind Guaidó, who, after presiding over an interim government, and bolstered by U.S. economic largesse, would organize new elections. The bet is that the members of Venezuela’s military and political elite will turn against Maduro once he no longer can provide them with the financial benefits they’ve become accustomed to.
Unlike most of President Trump’s gambits, this one was not the product of an errant tweet. Judging by the speed with which an impressive number of other governments followed the U.S. lead, the decision was well coordinated and planned. Now all it needs to do is succeed.
Viewed from Caracas, however, the future looks a tad more uncertain. Guaidó backers we met celebrate what they see as a perfect storm. The opposition appears more united than ever and enjoys unprecedented international and regional backing. Venezuela is suffering through an economic crisis of almost mythic proportions that the vast majority of Venezuelans blame on Maduro. The opposition leader is enjoying sky-high popularity. And there is no evident way out for an embattled president whose situation—economically, politically, diplomatically—they assume will only deteriorate with time.
Dig a little deeper, however, and even pro-Guaidó politicians admit they have little confidence that this will end peacefully or according to plan. They can’t imagine that Maduro, with so much to lose, will back down. They don’t trust that the military elite, which benefits so much from its control over licit and illicit businesses and which so far they have failed to reassure about its future, will defect. They wonder aloud about a possible U.S. military intervention, believing it could precipitate Maduro’s departure but also a future of violence and chaos in a country awash in weapons and replete with semiautonomous domestic and foreign armed groups. Right now, in short, they are riding high. But, they concede, that hardly means they are riding smoothly toward a denouement.
Those in Maduro’s camp, although unsettled by the depth of popular anger and breadth of international consensus and worried about what the United States might do, add to that list other reasons not to panic. They feel that what they need to do is stand fast, resist, and wait for that perfect storm to pass. They believe that if Maduro is still in power in two or three months, the opposition will lose its momentum and sense of inevitability; cracks will reemerge from within opposition ranks; and, as Venezuela’s economy craters and refugee flows soar, the world’s focus will shift from how to change the regime to how to stem the disaster. They argue that whatever divisions once existed within the broad camp comprising followers of former President Hugo Chávez—and, some acknowledge, those divisions and questioning of Maduro’s stewardship had indeed been growing—have been pushed aside as all close ranks in the face of what they describe as the attempted imposition of a new leader by the outside, a leader they associate with Latin America’s resurgent right, and imposed by the detested gringos, no less.
They also suspect that Guaidó’s political luster will fade. Not only will his presidency be shown to be devoid of actual power, but the political cost of the sanctions will shift from their shoulders to his. Although the public may be enamored with the opposition leader today, it will become disenchanted with him tomorrow, and wonder how he could possibly back American economic punitive measures that will have immeasurably worsened their lot.
Listen carefully to what more pragmatic voices on both sides say privately, and some intriguing ideas begin to surface. From some in the pro-Guaidó camp comes recognition that what Maduro and his allies currently have been offered is a choice between standing firm and surrendering, that they will likely choose the former, and that therefore if a peaceful solution is to be found, some compromise solution is needed, albeit one in which the government makes major concessions. Maybe an interim power arrangement that includes Maduro and Guaidó or neither of them, so long as the powers of the National Assembly are restored, the electoral commission is reconstituted, political prisoners are released, and early presidential elections under international supervision take place.
From some in the pro-Maduro camp comes acknowledgment of the deficiencies of the current leadership and a willingness to consider early elections, so long as U.S. threats and sanctions are removed and an interim Guaidó presidency is not forced on them. From some in both camps comes agreement that no one can voice these sorts of views publicly lest they be roundly condemned and discredited by their respective harder-line allies. This is a situation that cries for outside mediation.
Reenter the Trump administration. As we spoke to one of the more pragmatic opposition parliamentarians, he offered this curious thought: “Trump’s unyielding support is a gift that can do us harm.” What he meant was that the U.S. president had played a crucial role in altering the country’s political dynamics. As we visited the National Assembly, commotion stirred. We looked up to see Guaidó walking freely amid a throng of journalists and colleagues. That he could do so without fear of arrest or worse, his colleagues remarked, was a direct consequence of U.S. protection and of the implicit threat that, should something happen to him, something would happen to the government.
But what the parliamentarian also meant was that if Washington’s hard-line stance had pried open the door to a genuine transition, its inflexible posture risked slamming it shut. It would be difficult for an opposition member to stray too far from what Trump says, and if Trump says no negotiations and no compromise, then that was the baseline against which opposition members would be judged. He worried that, emboldened by U.S, support, the opposition would overplay its hand and miss an opportunity for a negotiated outcome. He and his colleagues needed the United States and its Latin American allies to complement their pressure with some additional margin of maneuver, some political cover, to enable them to safely prod and probe what might be possible and enter into discussions with a third-party mediator.
Absent such leeway, he feared an ugly scenario: Maduro doesn’t budge, the military refuses to act, violent escalation ensues—whether sparked by a U.S. intervention or something else—and Venezuela plunges into chaos. It’s easy for an American to tell a Venezuelan to keep his or her nerve, to be resolute and unyielding. It’s the Venezuelan who will suffer the consequences.
There is, of course, no guarantee, indeed possibly not even good odds, that a compromise could be found even if the United States were to moderate its stance and acquiesce in third-party efforts to reach a deal. The regime has mastered the art of negotiating for the sake of negotiating, of wasting time for the sake of survival. Even between the two sides’ more pragmatic elements, the gaps remain wide, and it’s hard to know whether their compromise proposals are genuine or simply meant to mollify overly insistent outsiders. But it’s worth testing, and the best test would come if a small group of countries, some trusted by the opposition and others by the regime, took up the task.
For now, in Caracas, such ideas seem somewhat detached from reality. For now, Venezuelans wonder what the military will do: stick with Maduro or split from him. For now, all eyes—the opposition’s as well as the government’s—are on Trump. An opposition deputy who clearly was full of gratitude for what the U.S. president had done put it this way: “It’s all in Trump’s hands. Whether he doubles down on pressure. Whether he gives us the space we need to negotiate. Whether, if he fails to dislodge Maduro after a few months, he loses interest or orders a military intervention. Yes, it’s all in Trump’s hands. God help us.”