How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
On January 23, Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly shocked the world. It declared the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, illegitimate, pronounced his office vacant, and proceeded to swear in National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as interim president in accordance with Venezuela’s constitutional provisions on presidential succession. Soon after, the United States, Canada, and most major governments in the Western Hemisphere recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
Such a bold and energetic move came as a surprise: 2018 had been a bleak year for Venezuela’s opposition. Despite having won control of the legislature in 2015 and led a massive civil disobedience campaign in 2017, the opposition seemed further than ever from removing Maduro’s deeply unpopular authoritarian government from office. The major anti-Maduro parties had spent the year fighting one another, arguing over whom to blame for their failure and leveling accusations that some had secretly sold out to the regime.
All the while, Venezuela’s economic and political crisis worsened. The economy has contracted by nearly 50 percent since Maduro first took office in 2013, oil production declined to levels not seen since 1950, and inflation reached an estimated annual rate of one million percent. Malnutrition afflicted many of the nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans who now live in poverty, and millions fled abroad in search of a better life, making Venezuela’s migration crisis the second worst in the world after Syria’s.
Yet Maduro hung on. His government clung to power with the help of financing from Russia and China, intelligence support from Cuba, and growing sales of gold to Turkey. Throughout 2018, Maduro consistently wrong-footed the opposition, even claiming victory in a presidential election in May that was deemed illegitimate by independent observers and over 50 foreign governments. For much of last year, it seemed as though Maduro had painted the opposition into a corner.
So what explains the sudden turnaround? Has Venezuela’s opposition gotten its mojo back? The answer is a qualified “Yes.” First, the opposition has at least temporarily overcome its tendency toward self-sabotage and factionalism. Second, it has developed a successful new approach to mobilizing discontented Venezuelans against the government. Third, it has conveyed to the armed forces, a linchpin of the Maduro regime, credible assurances that military officers would receive amnesty for any crimes they had previously committed if they supported a transition to democracy. And finally, by securing the swift—and difficult to reverse—recognition of Guaidó by the Trump administration and Latin American governments, the opposition has signaled to Maduro’s remaining supporters, especially those in the military, that the international community is committed to change.
Has Venezuela’s opposition gotten its mojo back?
As I wrote in Foreign Affairs last January, Venezuela’s opposition coalition was originally built for the purpose of winning unfree and unfair elections. And it succeeded, sweeping the 2015 legislative elections with a two-thirds majority. But the opposition quickly learned that elections no longer really matter in Venezuela. President Maduro invalidated the elections of two legislators to deny the opposition a supermajority, prohibited officials from testifying to the legislature, vetoed all legislation, and eventually convened a government-dominated constituent assembly to take on many of the legislature’s functions. Shut out of power, the opposition parties had too little in common, ideologically or programmatically, to effectively work together.
This appears to have changed. The surprise events of January 23 make clear that at least some opposition leaders, particularly from the Primero Justicia and Voluntad Popular parties, have been quietly doing their homework, developing both a domestic and an international strategy to pressure Maduro to step down. Guaidó of Voluntad Popular—whose leader, Leopoldo López, has been under house arrest since 2014—assumed the presidency of the National Assembly in December 2018, a post that rotates among the opposition parties that control the legislature.
With his roots in Venezuela’s student movement, the 35-year-old Guaidó is a fresh face who has proven to be more appealing than previous opposition leaders. Guaidó and his allies have pursued a new mobilization strategy, convening open-air town halls (known as cabildos abiertos) to engage with average Venezuelans. For the first time since the end of the 2017 protests, the public has proven responsive. When popular unrest spiked after a small military uprising failed on January 21, the cabildos helped lay the groundwork for massive demonstrations across Venezuela on January 23.
The opposition has also begun to use its legislative power in the National Assembly to signal to the military that it would not be threatened by a democratic transition. On January 15, the National Assembly passed an amnesty law that provides immunity to members of the military who act to restore democracy in Venezuela. Moreover, Guaidó has himself said that he does not intend to hold the military accountable for supporting Maduro.
Reassuring the military is important because it is an essential pillar of Maduro’s governing coalition. The armed forces control government ministries, the oil industry, food distribution, and internal security. Senior military commanders have so far been reluctant to act against Maduro for fear of being held accountable by a successor government. And they have good reason to fear accountability, since they are complicit in many of the regime’s crimes, including corruption, human rights abuses, and drug trafficking. (Junior officers are by all accounts much less satisfied with the regime, but they are subject to close ideological monitoring and counterintelligence surveillance, both by the regime and by its Cuban allies, to detect and dismantle potential coup plots.) Guaidó has made clear that the opposition is not calling for a coup but prefers that the armed forces as a whole remain in their barracks and resist orders to engage in repression against popular protests.
The opposition has also found a willing and important ally in the United States. Trump administration officials have grown frustrated with the failure of the United States’ targeted economic sanctions to make any real impact on the Maduro regime. In the past year, they have been casting about for alternatives, ranging from banning Venezuelan oil exports to the United States to prosecuting Maduro’s network of cronies and frontmen in U.S. courts.
The Venezuelan opposition presented the Trump administration with a fresh approach. It offered a legal theory according to which the United States could recognize Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela—if Maduro’s reelection was illegitimate, the opposition argued, the logical conclusion was that the office of the presidency of Venezuela was vacant as of the end of Maduro’s first term on January 10. According to Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, if the presidency is vacant, then the head of the National Assembly becomes interim president and calls for new elections.
Washington accepted this reasoning. By recognizing Guaidó, the Trump administration and its partners helped the Venezuelan opposition more credibly signal to the military that a transition to democracy is viable and will be supported by the international community. In doing so, the United States and other countries that have recognized Guaidó have taken a highly visible—and risky—diplomatic step that will be difficult to undo, committing them to backing the opposition.
The opposition’s strategy, conducted in coordination with the United States, is clearly a game changer, but will it work? There are two reasons to be skeptical. First, the Maduro administration continues to have the support and recognition of its most important international allies: China, Cuba, Russia, and Turkey. These countries are lenders of last resort, enablers of the Maduro regime, or both. Second, despite clear signals to the armed forces that they would benefit from a soft landing in the event of a democratic transition, major military commanders publicly declared their support for President Maduro on January 23 and 24. The incentive structure facing the military is still heavily stacked in favor of supporting the government.
There are many unpredictable and unforeseen consequences to the international recognition of Guaidó, ranging from questions about the disposition of Venezuelan assets abroad to the status of diplomats posted in Venezuela by governments that no longer consider Maduro the legitimate president. The Trump administration clearly wishes to increase pressure on Maduro and in the coming days will have ample opportunity to do so at the invitation of Guaidó.
The United States was correct to cooperate with the Venezuelan opposition—the Maduro regime has shown itself unwilling to negotiate in good faith with the opposition in recent years, even when external mediators such as the Vatican were involved. But Washington has chosen a risky path. By escalating with Maduro, the Trump administration has raised the possibility of misperception and misunderstanding leading to inadvertent conflict, especially given how little the U.S. and Venezuelan governments understand and respect each other.
Aggressive U.S. action will also run the risk of splitting the international coalition now backing the Venezuelan opposition and could also turn the situation into a U.S.-Venezuelan conflict rather than an effort to restore Venezuelan democracy. The latter would allow Maduro to fall back on the rhetoric of anti-imperialism and would provide an excuse for his allies—particularly Russia but perhaps also China—to continue offering their support. But even if the United States avoids this particular pitfall, Russia and China will undoubtedly see events in Venezuela as part of a new Western strategy to undermine their authoritarian allies and client states. They will develop countermeasures, and these will be unpleasant.
It is possible that under growing domestic and international pressure, Maduro may lose his nerve and flee the country. Alternatively, lower-ranking officers may simply gamble on a spontaneous rebellion to force the hand of senior officers, precipitating a violent outcome. But there is also a very significant risk that Maduro will remain in power with support from the military and his allies abroad, although he will be more internationally isolated than ever before. The opposition’s gamble may end with its leaders imprisoned or in exile. This would leave the Trump administration and the international community in a very difficult position, with fewer diplomatic tools than ever to influence Venezuela’s future in a positive direction.