The End Game in Venezuela

Erik Nolan Americas, Analysis, Conflict & Security

The current, rapid developments in Venezuela have brought into sharp focus the reality of the geopolitical situation for the ailing South American country. Much of the strategic itinerary for those involved—not just in Venezuela, but internationally as well—has dramatically halted in some instances, accelerated in others, or shifted entirely off course since January 23rd. And while the collapse of Nicolas Maduro’s regime seems inevitable, the aftershocks of a potential transition invite a litany of strategic consequences themselves.

In Brief

What happened? Venezuelan National Assembly opposition leader Juan Guaido has claimed the title of “Interim President” and countries are taking sides either in support of or against the government of Nicolas Maduro.

Why does it matter? Venezuela’s sudden internal conflict has attracted intense international attention and signals a geopolitical shift that will have wide-ranging consequences from disruption in oil markets to the changes in the balance of power in South America.

The Venezuelan people took to the streets in Caracas last week in a massive protest, where National Assembly opposition leader Juan Guaido assumed the title of “Interim President” in order to facilitate new elections against Nicloas Maduro, who has been termed as a “usurper.” Facing crushing inflation, starvation, and government repression, the Venezuelan people are expected to turn out in mass protests on Wednesday and Saturday. Guaido faced a rebuke from the Chavista administration and was banned from leaving the country, but that has not stopped the United States from transferring Venezuela’s assets to him and lobbying foreign holders from enacting further freezes on Venezuelan assets.

While Maduro has cracked down on protesters with unofficial curfews, riot police, and unleashing ruthlessly punitive security forces like the FAES and pseudo-vigilante colectivos, the fractures in the establishment have been increasingly coming to the forefront (this Bolivarian National Guard unit discussed the prospect of rebelling against Maduro days before the protest.) While the military made an official statement of support for the regime, increasing sanctions may jeopardize the military’s loyalty as the financial incentive for their allegiance evaporates. When this happens, Maduro will have lost all control.

The United States has seemingly put all its effort into facilitating Maduro’s exit from power. Mere moments after Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, Washington recognized him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and officially imbued him with the necessary authority to manage Venezuelan assets and ask for humanitarian aid.  When Maduro cut diplomatic ties and ordered all American diplomats to exit the country, the United States responded by declaring that Maduro didn’t have the authority to order their expulsion (notwithstanding the evacuation of non-essential staff and the likely insertion of extra military personnel.)

Washington aims to pursue regime change through a broad range of international avenues. In situ, this takes the form of appointing old-school Cold Warrior Elliot Abrams as envoy and sending General Mark Stammer of US SOUTHCOM to Colombia. Internationally, the United States takes a facilitating role with actions designed to further legitimize the National Assembly while simultaneously isolating Maduro. An ideal outcome for Washington is an international consensus with Latin American nations at the forefront to remove Maduro with absolutely minimal escalation.

Notably, those nations who still support Maduro are the likes of China, Russia, Iran, Syria, Nicaragua, and Turkey; where common cause among these countries are a combination of disdain for the United States, authoritarian government, and economic interests in Venezuela.

For instance, Russia had previously loaned billions of dollars to Venezuela last year, mainly relying on oil exports from PDVSA as reciprocation. Russia with Maduro’s government also floated the idea to base strategic bombers out of La Orchila, an island off the Venezuelan coast. While the military relationship between Russia and Venezuela has existed for decades, basing Tu-160 Blackjack bombers in the Caribbean intended to serve more as a foil for American foreign policy decisions closer to the sphere of the INF Treaty than any serious military commitment to the socialist regime.

Russia will likely withdraw support for Maduro as American sanctions on PDVSA eclipse any cost for continuing to prop the regime. Future interactions with the transitory government will try to recoup the lost billions in aid from Moscow and attempt to continue the development of joint oil and mineral interests in Venezuela.

It is further likely that Beijing will follow Moscow’s lead and acquiesce to the regime change; China had previously lent 60 billion dollars to Venezuela, and like Russia, has maintained a relationship with the regime over the years through military and technological aid. However, their overtures to gain influence in Latin America have been met with mixed results, and the chief concern of Beijing will be to maintain its creditor status with Venezuela, come what may.

The reaction from Cuba has yet to be gauged fully and will perhaps be the most impactful for Venezuela going forward. While Havana sides with Maduro, a departure from Castro-style governance and the extent to which the Cubans are embedded in the Venezuelan government is still a contested subject. It is not likely that a regime change will see the drastic reduction of Cuban influence in the government and especially not the military—the organ which will be critical to maintaining order and preventing an escalation of conflict. While Venezuela’s interim government maintains a commitment to peaceful transition, the reestablishment of the Venezuelan economy and political structure will naturally involve participation from foreign nations—and no country has invested more political, military, and ideological effort into Venezuela than Cuba has. While Russia and China can countenance a loss of political influence, Cuba’s commitment to Venezuela as an ideological bulwark against the United States will not diminish uncontested.

About the Author

Erik Nolan

Erik Nolan is a director and senior analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. An alumnus of Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, his research interests include nuclear arms proliferation and deterrence.

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