The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
A little insistence from Washington used to go a long way in Latin America. In 1954, for instance, the CIA and the U.S. State Department backed a coup against Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz—an episode memorably fictionalized in the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Fierce Times. The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala—a fanatical anticommunist who combines “threats and an outstanding capacity for intrigue”—urges the country’s military chiefs to avert a U.S. invasion by restoring “democracy.” Pale faced and sheepish, the commanders soon install a more palatable leader in Árbenz’s place.
Washington has been reusing fragments of this playbook in Venezuela since early 2019, but with little success. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has thrown its support behind efforts to split the armed forces, plotted with supposed turncoats in the Venezuelan government, and imposed fearsome economic sanctions on Caracas. In January 2019, then National Security Adviser John Bolton invited Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to occupy “a nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela.” Two months later, Trump warned that top U.S. officials were urging him to “get into a war” to topple the Venezuelan strongman. But Maduro and his ruling clique have held on despite the sanctions, diplomatic boycotts, and threats of military intervention.
Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, the ground beneath the Venezuelan leader and the opposition that seeks to remove him has given way. Although Venezuela has reported relatively few cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the contagion has had an immense effect on the country’s economy. Collapsing commodity prices have made it impossible for Maduro’s government to earn a profit from oil sales, which were once its chief source of revenue. Meanwhile, broken refineries and crippling U.S. sanctions mean that the country with the largest oil reserves in the world now has regular food and fuel shortages.
The United States and the Venezuelan opposition have sought to exploit Maduro’s vulnerability. On March 26, the Trump administration indicted the Venezuelan leader and a slew of his top officials on narcotrafficking charges. It followed this up with naval operations in the Caribbean that regime supporters interpreted as the prelude to a blockade or an invasion. Predictably, Maduro and his ministers have portrayed themselves as the victims of an imperial conspiracy, blaming U.S. sanctions for leaving Venezuela’s health system unprepared for the coronavirus. In the end, however, Maduro cannot credibly blame only the American “empire” for Venezuela’s most pressing ills: crumbling health-care infrastructure and an economy that has contracted roughly 70 percent since 2013, largely because of egregious price and currency controls and corruption.
Today, Venezuela’s fate rests not in the hands of Maduro or Trump but rather in the fists of restless people lacking medicine, food, and fuel. Despite the nationwide lockdowns, Maduro faced 500 protests in the month of April. The government has reached out to China, Iran, and Russia for help restoring the country’s fuel supply and acquiring medical equipment. What is more, Maduro’s allies have reportedly restarted exploratory talks with the opposition to reduce the pandemic’s effects on Venezuela. But Maduro, long considered Latin America’s immovable object, may well dig in his heels. In the event of a renewed struggle between the government and the opposition, Venezuela could well fall even deeper into chaos and disarray.
Six decades separate the coup in Guatemala and the international campaign for regime change in Venezuela. In that time, most Latin American countries have undergone profound, if incomplete, democratic transformations. Additionally, the United States’ penchant for military action in the region has mellowed. In 2015, however, the United States toughened its stance against Maduro, declaring Venezuela a national security threat and freezing the assets of Maduro’s top officials. This hard-line approach, which started under U.S. President Barack Obama, has continued and intensified under Trump.
Guaidó’s alternative presidency had (and has) no real power in Venezuela
The situation came to a head in the first few months of 2019. In January, Juan Guaidó—Venezuela’s youthful opposition leader and head of the National Assembly—declared his “interim presidency” before supporters in Caracas. The Trump administration immediately recognized Guaidó’s claim to power and promised to use the “full weight of [the United States’] economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.” Days later, Colombian President Iván Duque predicted that Maduro had “very few hours” left. All the while, social media trilled with insults and brutal auguries of a Qaddafi-like denouement for the “narco-dictator.”
But in truth, Guaidó’s alternative presidency had (and has) no real power in Venezuela. The opposition leader has relied on international goodwill, wishful thinking, and what the philosopher of language J. L. Austin called “performative utterances”—in effect, efforts to change reality by talking. The fact that Guaidó has been unable to unseat Maduro says a little about waning U.S. power in the region, but a lot more about the fundamentals of a populist, politically cunning, and impressively cohesive ruling bloc.
There are two divergent accounts of why Maduro’s regime was not and possibly will not be unseated. Opposition circles stress the government’s coercive and venal machinations, rooted in a catalog of corrupt rackets: triangulated oil exports that dodge U.S. sanctions; gold mines that pepper the country’s south and cause inordinate environmental harm; and drug trafficking. The administration distributes these profits to its cronies, thereby securing loyalty from the military and civilian leaders. Should these payoffs fail to work, the regime’s security apparatus provides a reliable fallback.
Hard-line opposition figures contend that the threats to Maduro’s regime have so far lacked sufficient menace and credibility to scare Maduro’s supporters out of their money-grubbing sloth. One senior figure in Guaidó’s camp insisted that further sanctions are needed, until “they generate such a level of desperation and paranoia that they either break the government or make the country ungovernable.” Others remain convinced that nothing short of a U.S. invasion will topple the Venezuelan strongman.
The opposition has repeatedly assumed support it did not have and failed to venture out of its middle-class bastions.
Those who are sympathetic to the government or who take Maduro’s Bolivarian socialism more seriously as a political force point to the government’s wellsprings of loyalty and ideological solidarity as the reasons for its longevity. One top politician told me that even at its lowest ebb, the Bolivarian movement could claim support from 25 percent of the public. In this view, treating Maduro and his colleagues as criminals is counterproductive. “Of course there are corrupt people, thugs and thieves, in the government,” one longtime regime supporter confided, but “pressure doesn’t generate fractures among the leaders: it generates cohesion.”
According to this account, the opposition has repeatedly assumed support it did not have and failed to venture out of its middle-class bastions. Time and again, whether in the 2002 coup against President Hugo Chávez, the street uprising against Maduro in 2014, or the bid to put Maduro’s presidency to a referendum in 2016, the main opposition forces breezily presumed that one insurrectionary heave could remove the Venezuelan president. On each occasion they were wrong.
In fact, there is truth to both accounts. Whereas Árbenz, Guatemala’s doomed reformer, knew that around half of his troops would swap sides if the United States invaded, Maduro is confident in the knowledge that Venezuela’s military has largely remained loyal to the regime. The top brass, in particular, has a huge economic stake in Maduro’s government. One recent report based on leaked documents revealed that a third of the country’s many generals control their own companies. Many more occupy top government posts and have important roles in state-run companies. Rank-and-file soldiers also feel a stubborn affinity with the regime—a devotion fostered by the fact that the last six military coup attempts in Venezuela have failed.
The novel coronavirus, however, is far more threatening to the government than a military coup. Even regime insiders agree that the episode that most poisoned civil-military relations last year was not any opposition protest but a 50-hour electricity outage and an ensuing string of blackouts, some tainted by looting. Public disorder is the government’s gnawing fear. Military leaders have never looked kindly on public unrest and the growth of nonstate armed factions, but these are precisely the threats that the virus, the lockdown decreed by Maduro in March, and plunging oil prices have begun to unleash.
Public disorder is the government’s gnawing fear.
Venezuela’s health system has an estimated 80 ventilators for a population of 28 million; only 60 percent of hospitals have access to running water. Fuel for transport is now so scarce owing to sanctions, broken refineries, and quarantine restrictions that it is to a large extent unavailable. Food prices have reportedly risen over 50 percent in recent weeks. Thousands of jobless Venezuelans who had been living in neighboring countries are returning, and rumors of heavily armed opposition insurgent factions abound. (The rumors have been partially substantiated by the recent crackpot incursion into Venezuela by a minuscule group of military deserters and U.S. mercenaries.)
In short, the coronavirus pandemic has made a bad situation much, much worse. Some 79 percent of Venezuelans expressed disapproval of the government in March, according to a survey by Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most respected polling companies. A third of Venezuelans were going hungry before the pandemic struck, and five million had fled. The United Nations has since warned that the country is at risk of falling into famine as food imports have ground to a virtual halt. If protests and efforts to unseat the government intensify, Maduro will likely resort to an ever more brutal crackdown on opposition and dissent, increasing the risk that some form of armed conflict or violent schism of the state will ensue.
Maduro’s government survived several turbulent episodes in 2019 by outsourcing many of its responsibilities—trading oil via the Russian firm Rosneft and other third parties; ditching its control over prices, imports, and currency; and relying increasingly on nonstate armed groups to keep communities docile. The regime may deploy similar tactics to respond to the pandemic and the attendant economic downturn.
The country is plainly unable to meet its people’s basic health and economic needs.
Civil society groups and moderates on both sides have called for an urgent humanitarian truce between Maduro and Guaidó, enabling the United Nations and relief organizations to receive and coordinate enhanced aid without being accused of serving either side’s political interests. The idea has circulated without gaining much traction from either president. Maduro probably desires a new national dialogue, despite his failure to make any substantive concessions in previous rounds of talks. Opposition leaders remain wary: they are unwilling to let Maduro use talks to once again split and dispirit the opposition.
Without progress toward an immediate humanitarian truce and eventually toward a political settlement backed by foreign observers, a terrifying prospect awaits. The country is plainly unable to meet its people’s basic health and economic needs. It is a political and social cocktail that promises misery, unrest, and instability. All sides still have their eyes on the political prize, but as long as they remain narrowly focused on seizing or maintaining power, the price of what they wish for will be paid by the common Venezuelan.
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