Venezuela: A slow moving crisis

Gwynne Dyer

Juan Guaidó returned to Venezuela on Monday after almost two weeks doing the rounds of Latin American capitals that recognise his claim to be the ‘interim president’ of the country. He defied a government ban in order to leave the country, so he should be arrested any minute now. Or maybe not.

Despite all the ferocious rhetoric from both Guaidó’s camp and Nicolás Maduro’s ‘elected’ regime, there is a curious lack of urgency in their actions.

Maduro has still not arrested Guaidó, although in the past he imprisoned other opposition leaders for much lesser offences than claiming to be president. And Guaidó has not yet appointed an ‘interim vice-president’ to take over if he goes to jail — which suggests that he doesn’t really expect to be arrested either.

Given the fragmented nature of the Venezuelan opposition — four major parties that have a fragile power-sharing agreement called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) — Guaidó’s reluctance to pick a vice-president from one of them is understandable. He only became president of the National Assembly last year because it was the ‘turn’ of his party, Popular Will.

He can’t choose his potential replacement from Popular Will too, but there is no agreement in place for which other opposition party should provide that leader instead. So to avoid a struggle within the MUD coalition in the midst of his confrontation with the Maduro regime, Guaidó simply hasn’t chosen an interim vice-president.

On the other hand, if Guaidó were arrested now without having appointed a deputy, there would be an equally great risk of a squabble breaking out between the four parties in MUD over who should succeed him. Conclusion: he calculates that he probably won’t be arrested. Of course, he could be wrong, but so far this is a very slow-moving crisis.

The lack of urgency even extends to the US armed forces, which are making no visible preparations to invade Venezuela. Connoisseurs of America’s foreign wars know that they almost always clank around for several weeks or months moving forces into place before they actually cross a defended border. They are not doing that.

Why is everybody moving so slowly? Because they are all still hoping that there can be a peaceful outcome, if nobody pushes too hard right now.

Guaidó’s big disappointment came on Saturday, when he had promised that hundreds of thousands of people would go the borders to bring in the US-supplied ‘humanitarian aid’ that the Maduro regime has been blocking. It didn’t go very well. The masses didn’t show up, and the Venezuelan soldiers who are keeping the aid out didn’t defect in significant numbers.

But Maduro can’t be very confident either. He knows that the desperate shortages of food and medicine (which have caused three million Venezuelans to leave the country in the past few years) have severely eroded the regime’s popular support.

Maduro got only one-third of the seats in the 2015 elections to the National Assembly, and responded by trying to replace it with a rival ‘Constituent Assembly’. (The National Assembly is still in business, however, and Guaidó is its president). He had to rig the voting and imprison opposition leaders to ‘win’ last year’s presidential election. The best estimate is that he retains about 15% popular support.

And the US army really doesn’t want to invade Venezuela. It’s looking forward to being released from seventeen years of unwinnable guerilla wars in the Middle East, and the last thing it needs now is a new counter-insurgency campaign in Venezuela.

That’s probably what it would face if it invaded. Maduro’s regime has certainly lost majority support, but even if only fifteen percent of the population remain loyal to the ‘revolution’, there would still be a guerilla and terrorist resistance that might last for years.

The Maduro regime is slowly unravelling, mainly because of its spectacular incompetence. Every major oil-exporting economy has been hurt by the drop in oil prices, but only in Venezuela are large numbers of people facing severe malnutrition, and only in Venezuela has oil production fallen — by an astonishing two-thirds.

It’s not because of US sanctions, which only began in a serious way in 2017, and it’s not because of ‘socialism’. (Cuba came through a cash-flow crisis just as profound after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and nobody starved.) It’s because words like ‘re-investment’ and ‘maintenance’ are not part of the Chavista vocabulary.

If the regime is probably heading for collapse anyway, it’s in nobody’s interest to unleash major and long-lasting violence by pushing too hard now. Amnesties and other deals could ease a peaceful transition, and there’s still time to see if that would work.

That doesn’t mean that this confrontation can’t have a violent conclusion, but it does explain why all the major players are taking it slow.

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