7 May 2019

The postponed downfall of Nicolas Maduro

By Emanuele Ottolenghi

Last week, Venezuelan transitional president Juan Guaido showed up at an army base in Caracas and, flanked by the iconic opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, he announced that a military uprising was under way to restore democracy in his beleaguered country.

It did not turn out that way. By day’s end, the regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro was still in control of the army. Lopez – who had just been released from house arrest a few hours before – moved into the Chilean ambassador’s residence (and later on to the Spanish embassy) alongside his family. Twenty-five military personnel involved in the failed uprising also sought asylum in the Brazilian embassy. By nine pm local time, state-run TV beamed a uniformed Maduro into the ether: Venezuela’s thug-in-chief was still in control.

In fact, the uprising was anything but a failure. Days later, the Maduro regime may still be in power but its support base is increasingly fragile and, as time goes by, it may become untenable. It is a matter of time before the Maduro regime falls and the transitional government of Guaido can finally restore the legitimate constitutional order and move the country away from the brink.

Maduro and his cronies, despite the boisterous rhetoric on live TV and social media about having defeated an imperialist coup orchestrated by Washington, will not dare touch Guaido. The regime unleashed its Cuban-controlled security apparatus and street thugs against peaceful protesters. It is powerless to stop Guaido. This has been the case since Guaido took up the position of transitional president, on January 23. He has been able to travel abroad and return to Venezuela without being arrested.

Critically, Maduro has been unable so far to chip away from the mounting legitimacy Guaido enjoys internationally. Not only have 54 countries recognised Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president; one by one, important positions in international bodies are being taken from Maduro’s representatives and handed over to Guaido’s. Asset recovery of funds stolen from Maduro’s cronies is under way in a worldwide hunt. Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice is pushing forward new criminal cases against members of the Maduro cupola;  the US Department of Treasury is expanding, on a weekly basis, the list of sanctioned Venezuelan officials; and the US sanctions program is moving to squeeze critical allies to Maduro’s stealing machine in Cuba, Nicaragua, Russia and Turkey.

The April 30 call for a military uprising did not happen on a whim. Guaido must have known that Lopez would be released from captivity and that he enjoyed enough support within the senior ranks of the military that his plan might succeed. Though it did not, it is clear now that enough people inside Maduro’s inner circle considered defecting. Russian pressure likely made Maduro change his mind about leaving the country to a golden exile. Yet the Russians cannot save Maduro or his collapsing economy forever. At some point, even Moscow will begin to think about cutting losses.

Besides, recent events have exposed Maduro’s weakness in one more dramatic way. Dictators who survive betrayal and palace coups are wont of forgiving conspirators. Yet, so far, no heads are rolling inside Maduro’s entourage – another sign of weakness. Though far from the hoped-for-outcome, the process initiated by Guaido last week seems to have made another dent in Maduro’s crumbling edifice of power.

What should Washington and its allies do next?

The Trump administration needs to continue rallying international support for Guaido. Its strategy has paid off until now and it remains a sensible way forward as Washington plays the long game against Maduro. Sanctions must continue. As part of this strategy, Washington needs to widen the pool of nations that recognise Guaido. It also needs to get the Lima Group, especially the countries bordering Venezuela, to become more assertive in their efforts to support Guaido and marginalise Maduro. A first step would be to help them identify critical assets associated with Venezuela’s oil industry, PDVSA, in their country, so that those assets can be seized and turned over to Guaido’s administration, to fund their efforts.

The US Justice Department needs to continue producing criminal indictments against human rights violators, drug trafficking facilitators and food and medicine racketeers inside the regime. These actions – together with the prospect of asset freeze against regime cronies – speak louder than words, especially given the promise of amnesty to those who switch sides. Judging by the amount of information being leaked to the media and prosecutors – just last week the New York Times published a lengthy exposé of ties between former Venezuelan vice-president and current minister of industry, Tareck El Aissami and Hezbollah – there is no shortage of Maduro loyalists hedging their bets now.

US sanctions pressure on Maduro’s cronies and their supporters must be expanded, with special attention to Cuba. Havana has thousands of agents deployed in Venezuela to shield Maduro from falling, yet it has incurred little diplomatic or economic costs. It is time for Washington to change that equation.

The removal of Maduro from power may take longer than expected – certainly longer than Juan Guaido must have thought on April 30 when he called for the Venezuelan military to take his side. Yet in the cold light of day, it is increasingly clear that Maduro’s days are numbered.

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Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.