The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela’s crisis starts to look like a stalemate

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The Trump administration maintains that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is in his last days in power. The United States has presided over an international pressure campaign that has led to stifling sanctions against the regime in Caracas and seen dozens of Western countries recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president. The country’s ruinous economic crisis shows no sign of improving, and the White House believes Maduro’s crucial backing within the Venezuelan military is crumbling.

“We have lots of information suggesting that just as most Venezuelans are clearly unhappy with this regime and want it to come to an end, most members of the Venezuelan military feel the same way,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, said Friday in Washington.

“Maduro is facing his last days, whether that’s one month or two, or one week, or one day,” Colombian President Iván Duque told The Washington Post in an interview March 3 at a military base in Bogota. He said Maduro was “losing support by the hour.”

Duque and the Trump administration had hoped a gambit last month to force Venezuelan security forces to allow humanitarian aid convoys to cross over from Colombia would precipitate a mutiny against Maduro. But that wasn’t quite the outcome. Instead, Maduro loyalists blocked the convoy’s passage and closed ranks behind the regime. Though hundreds of Venezuelan soldiers defected to the opposition by crossing the border, the military as a whole remains staunchly in Maduro’s camp.

Both sides used the clashes to fuel their own messaging: A legion of Maduro critics, including U.S. politicians, pinned the blame for the torching of a number of aid trucks on the perfidy of the regime. But a New York Times investigation published Sunday points to new evidence that the fires were set off inadvertently by opposition protesters. Maduro had already deemed the burning trucks a “false flag” operation by Duque and the Venezuelan opposition.

Thousands took to the streets on March 9 in response to a call by opposition leader Juan Guaidó. President Nicolás Maduro also called on his followers. (Video: Reuters)

On Saturday, Maduro declared at a rally in Caracas that he had overcome a “coup” fomented by outside “imperialist” powers. At the same time, in another part of the capital, Guaidó spoke before thousands of supporters, despite a heavy police presence. On Sunday, White House national security adviser John Bolton insisted on national television that the fact that Guaidó had not been arrested was proof that Maduro knew “if he gave that order, it would not be obeyed.”

But as tenuous as his grip on power may seem, Maduro shows no sign of relinquishing command. As The Post’s Mary Beth Sheridan reported from Caracas, that’s largely because too many figures within the Venezuelan military are wary of turning the government over to the opposition. Both Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, consolidated their control over the state through networks of patronage involving military officials on many levels.

Divorcing the top brass, or even junior officers, from Maduro is no easy feat, explained political scientist Javier Corrales, who pointed to different factions within the military the opposition must woo.

“There’s the standard military establishment, which in Venezuela consists of professional career soldiers. Then there are nonstandard groups,” wrote Corrales. “They include ideologized soldiers, working together with Cuban military and intelligence officials to crack down on dissent. They also include bureaucrat generals who support Maduro because they have good jobs running state-owned corporations, and profit-seeking soldiers, who are making a fortune trafficking in illicit markets, including the drug trade. Finally, there are Maduro’s killing agents, in charge of repressing.”

Given the depths of their involvement preserving Venezuela’s status quo, many in the military may not be tempted by the opposition’s promises of amnesty for defectors. “The law of amnesty isn’t attractive enough,” Félix Seijas, a social scientist at the Central University of Venezuela, told Sheridan. “Those who are compromised are very compromised. The amnesty law will not benefit them. Those who aren’t that compromised won’t need the amnesty law.”

Observers now warn of the stalemate in Venezuela evolving into what’s been seen in other authoritarian contexts — where despite economic isolation and dysfunction, a regime buttressed by a military vanguard clings to power and demoralizes the opposition. “What happens if you don’t break that military structure and the country continues to deteriorate? You have the terrible scenario of a Cuba or an Iran or a Syria or a Zimbabwe,” Luis Vicente León, head of the Datanalisis polling firm in Caracas, told The Post.

All the while, the suffering of ordinary Venezuelans gets worse. A massive blackout hit much of the country late last week, shutting down telecommunications, deepening the strain on the country’s already faltering medical system and making the daily struggle for food and clean water more difficult. Intermittent outages continued over the weekend.

According to the opposition, at least 17 people died as hospitals were rocked by outages; public transportation came to a halt, making it difficult for physicians to get to work. On Sunday, my colleagues encountered a 24-year-old woman in a Caracas hospital whose baby died because no pediatric surgeon was present.

Guaidó called for renewed protests Monday in response to the government’s hapless handling of the power cuts. Maduro predictably blamed the situation on outside “sabotage,” but experts looked closer to home. “The blackout was more likely a result of corruption, a lack of maintenance, the exodus of skilled workers and the soaring cost of imported parts when paid with Venezuela’s devalued currency,” my colleagues reported.

Oscar Hernandez, a 40-year-old engineer, spoke to The Post as he was stocking up on candles at a store in eastern Caracas. “I’m preparing for Armageddon,” he said. “The government is too incompetent to fix it in the short term.”

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