The April 30th and May 1st marches were a turning point in the power struggle between National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. While some see the demonstrations as proof the opposition continues to grow in strength, others are confident the government will survive. We present a 3 x 3 analysis – three potential scenarios and, in each one, three keys for strategic analysis – to describe how the situation could unfold.
Scenario 1: Juan Guaidó prevails and is officially proclaimed interim president of Venezuela
Key 1. Armed Forces. A possible means of success for Guaidó’s “Operation Freedom” lies in exploiting cracks in Maduro’s main source of support, the armed forces. The weak and failed military uprising of April 30 is evidence of military schisms that, potentially, could be seized on. Stripped of the support of the armed forces and amid an unprecedented economic crisis and mounting public unrest, Maduro would be internally isolated and most likely resign or be easily removed.
Key 2. Political Allies. Another possible path for Guaidó to the interim presidency would be a collapse in support for the ruling party, with members each attempting to negotiate themselves out of the crisis to save their own skin. Under this scenario, it could be envisaged that key figures within Maduro’s government, such as the President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Maikel Moreno, or the President of the Constituent National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, emerge as interlocutors with the opposition to negotiate a peaceful solution, possibly in return for for privileges such as political immunity.
Key 3. International pressure. Global influences are another factor worth analyzing in describing Guaidó’s prospects. More than fifty countries, led by the United States, now recognize him as interim President of Venezuela and have urged Maduro to step down. High-level officials of international organizations have expressed the same view, with the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro the most vociferous. Added to these measures are economic sanctions, including those applied by the U.S. government against Venezuelan state-owned companies such as Citgo.
SCENARIO 2: Maduro’s administration resists the onslaught and emerges stronger
Key 1. A weakened opposition. Should the army remain loyal to Maduro the opposition could eventually tire if it fails to achieve concrete gains. After all, such lack of robust progress was behind the petering out of the mass demonstrations between 2014 and 2017 that called for economic reforms and denounced the judiciary’s encroachment on the legislature. However, the comparison is only part valid. The opposition today has broad international support, the economic crisis has worsened significantly and the legitimacy of the last elections has been widely questioned at home and abroad.
Key 2. Armed forces. The army’s continued support for Maduro is of course pivotal, and could see his government ride out the crisis. Much would likely hinge in that case on the loyalty and actions of the current Minister of Defense and Head of the Armed Forces, Vladimir Padrino López, who has been at pains to restate his allegiance to Maduro. Maduro has himself in recent weeks ordered and attended a string of military shows and parades to highlight the closeness and mutual support of the government and the armed forces.
Key 3. Freedom of speech. After the protests of 2014 and 2017, the Executive branch temporarily cut international news media feeds such as CNN en Español and NTN24. Numerous opposition officials were also arrested for alleged crimes of conspiracy and treason, such as Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma. After the marches of April 30 and May 1, 2019, the Constituent National Assembly removed the immunity of ten deputies suspected of promoting the demonstrations and the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the arrest of opposition legislator Edgar Zambrano on charges of treason and public instigation of disobedience. In today’s context, it is plausible that similar actions could be effective in curbing opposition momentum and public pressure.
SCENARIO 3: Dead heat
Could a long-lasting situation arise where neither figure prevails? So far Guaidó’s efforts to oust Maduro have fallen short. On the other hand, Maduro appears to be lacking both the capacity and legitimacy to meaningfully neutralize the opposition. We believe a permanency of sorts in the current standoff could conceivably be maintained through one of, or a mix of, the three “ways” outlined below.
Key 1. International mediation. In the event that the crisis cannot be resolved through internal political or institutional channels, the role and intervention of other countries in the region and/or wider global bodies could become crucial. For this to be a decisive factor, international mechanisms created to foster dialogue between Guaidó and Maduro, such as the International Contact Group and the Lima Group, need to unify their positions and develop strategies to jointly resolve the country’s institutional crisis.
Key 2. International migration. Any protraction of the conflict would increase the number of Venezuelans based outside the country. According to the United Nations, more than 3.4 million Venezuelans have left in the last three years. It predicts that this will reach 8 million by the end of 2020. Certainly this not only represents a challenge for Venezuela but also for other countries in the region, which need the necessary preparation and infrastructure to cater for Venezuelan immigrants.
Key 3. Extra-regional power dynamics. The standoff in Venezuela is being influenced not only by internal but also external actors. The United States, Russia and China are some of the countries indirectly involved in the conflict. In the case of the US, Donald Trump’s administration was the first to recognize Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, amid truculent rhetoric leveled against Chavism and Nicolás Maduro. In contrast, Russia and China are Maduro’s main allies, propping him up with funds to deal with the economic crisis.
It’s hard at present to make any firm prediction on how the situation in Venezuela will unfold, but what is certain is that the multiplicity of possible scenarios, stakeholders and political dynamics have yet to decisively favor either of the two main protagonists. Just as certain is that there is a humanitarian crisis brewing both inside and outside Venezuela that will only grow more acute come what may. Against this backdrop, any effort at political forecasting is intended merely to guide an analysis of possible scenarios.