Nicolas Maduro’s days as president of Venezuela appear to be numbered. Popular disaffection tied to the country’s economic chaos, the claim of opposition leader Juan Guaido to be its legitimate president, and U.S. and international pressure seem likely to hasten the exit of the recently re-elected leader. The support of Venezuelan military leaders —who also control the distribution of food, medicine, and basic goods, and the country’s critical infrastructure—is likely the only thing keeping Maduro in power.
Initially, at least, that support appeared to be holding. One day after Guaido declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, Venezuelan Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino Lopez and his senior command immediately pledged their loyalty and support to Maduro. For good measure, Padrino denounced the move as a coup in the making.
Venezuelan military senior leaders have good reason to support Maduro: he compensates them generously. But his endless streams of cash won’t last indefinitely. On. Jan. 28, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin levied economic sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil enterprise Petroleos de Venezuela, cutting off Maduro’s access to critical revenue and $7 billion in PDVSA assets.
But in order to facilitate a democratic transition and Maduro’s exit, Guaido will probably have to convince Venezuelan military high commanders to withdraw their support for Maduro. Here are a few scenarios to consider:
Maduro resigns or flees. No fool, yet clearly incapable of reversing his country’s political, economic, social, and humanitarian crisis, Maduro may already be planning his resignation and flight. Perhaps Russia and Cuba, who may prefer a more anti-U.S. leader than Guaido seems likely to be, could persuade Maduro to resign and flee to hospitable locations such as Bolivia, Nicaragua, or Cuba, while Moscow and Havana find a suitable anti-American figure to take his place. China has been more reticent as the events in Caracas have unfolded; Beijing would prefer to work with Maduro but would probably be willing to cooperate with Guaido so as not to jeopardize its investments and access to lucrative oil, natural gas, and development projects in the country.
Guaido rallies military to his side. The opposition leader knows that he needs the military to restore public confidence in the government and to loosen economic controls so that vital food, medical, and basic supplies can flow freely into the country and to its people. He has already begun reaching out to the military. He drafted a bill to offer amnesty to soldiers who leave Maduro, a measure that would also offer pardons to civilians, politicians, public officials and military members accused during the governments of Hugo Chávez — who was president from 1999 to 2013 — and Maduro of committing crimes or supporting unconstitutional acts. (Incidentally, Guaido’s outreach has risks: the Venezuelan military is known to be penetrated by Cuban agents who can provide Havana real-time updates of developments in Caracas.) In any case, Guaido will soon test their loyalty: he announced on Feb. 3 that a U.S. humanitarian assistance shipment will bring much-needed medical and nutritional supplies with Colombian and Brazilian support. But those goods and services only flow through ports by the assent of the military.
It was encouraging to see the Venezuelan military attaché to the United States, Col. Jose Luis Silva, publicly endorse and support Guaido on Jan. 27. Silva cited Guaido’s roadmap for a peaceful and systematic transition, restoration of democratic rule, and support for free and transparent elections for the Venezuelan people. On Feb. 2, Gen. Francisco Yanez, who leads strategic planning for the Venezuela Air Force, recognized Guaido as president in a video, in which he declared that 90 percent of the Venezuelan military now supports the opposition leader. Yanez’s defection indicates that dissent is increasing within Venezuela’s senior military high command — and with it, a speedier end to Maduro’s rule.
The views in this article solely reflect those of the author and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense.