Read: The White House’s move on Venezuela is the least Trumpian thing it’s done
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.
Read: How seriously should the world take Trump’s Venezuela threat?
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.