Juan Guaidó Claims the Presidency: How Will This Play Out?

Amid huge street protests, opposition leader Juan Guaidó has now sworn himself in as Interim Presidency. The United States, Canada, Brazil and others recognize him; the Venezuelan Armed Forces and police do not. At a time of pervasive uncertainty, how to think about what comes next?

Photo: Voa Noticias retrieved

Juan Guaidó has just declared himself caretaker president of Venezuela, amid the largest street demonstrations the country has seen since 2017. The United States recognized him as the rightful president within minutes. Canada, Brazil and much of the rest of the hemisphere followed suit. Nicolás Maduro retains the loyalty of the security services, though, including the Armed Forces.

So how will this play out?

Like in 2014 and 2017, the regime is being challenged once again, on the streets. The country is immeasurably poorer and less free than it was in previous bouts of street protests, the regime far more aggressive in its bid to retain power.

When you don’t know what’s going to happen, the best you can do is think probabilistically.

The immediate future is enormously murky, and the uncertainty, understandably, drives everybody a little bit crazy. We all rebel against the simple, obvious truth: nobody knows what comes next.

And we rebel even more against the obvious implication: when you don’t know what’s going to happen, the best you can do is think probabilistically.

Is there a chance that this is the time when the opposition’s bet comes up good? Of course there is. But it’s only that, a chance. But to look at Venezuela today responsibly, is to realize that there are other ways this could play out. Including…

The One We All Fear

The regime could ride this crisis out, just like it did in 2014 and 2017. Rely on the old combination of tear gas, selective arrests, torture and propaganda to wear away at the convulsion until people give up.

There’s little point going to deep into this scenario: we know it all too well. Just remember, it’s only that, one possibility. And no, it’s not the worst one.

The Worst Case Scenario

In 2014, having the security services pull the plug on the Maduro regime was a fantasy. In 2017, it was a hope. In 2019, it’s the plan.

Questions about the military’s loyalty have moved from sub-text to triple-underlined, bold-font text. That leaves the men in fatigues under enormous pressure. Guaidó is calling for the Armed Forces to move, as a single unit, in defense of the Constitution and against the de facto regime.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t.

Or maybe, part of it will.

Look, it’s not in the nature of worst-case-scenarios to be especially likely. But the conditions are now fully laid out for the kind of miscalculation that lies at the outset of every war. On our Political Risk Report (which, if you haven’t already, you should definitely subscribe to) we’ve been reporting for years on barely-papered-over fractures within the Armed Forces, and the Brass’s ongoing fear that eventually they’re bound to spill out into public view.

Scholars know every war begins with a mistake. Two sides decide to fight each other. Both believe they’ll win. One of them must be wrong. One of them must be miscalculating.

No miscalculation; no war.

Right now, there are enormous pressures on the military. It’s possible the institution will fracture into two relatively evenly-matched halves. Who then proceed to shoot it out. It’s also possible it will fragment into eight or ten grouplets, each controlling one portion of territory, none strong enough to overpower the others. A nineteenth-century-plus-Twitter scenario.

Venezuela has lived through so many calamities in the last few years, we always tend to fall into the trap of thinking it can’t get any worse. It can get much, much worse. A civil war would obviously invite international intervention, on both sides. A Caribbean Syria, layered on top of a pre-existing food crisis, could make 2018 look like the good-old-days in retrospect.

This is just one possibility, but it’d be irresponsible to dismiss it out of hand. It’s not very likely. It’s also, emphatically, not impossible.

The trick, again, is to keep the full spectrum of possibilities in view at once, without being so tempted by the shiny glimmers of the best case scenario or by the desastrista curiosity of the worst to lose sight of the whole.

It’s enormously difficult to do. It’s why we hate uncertainty so much. But that’s what hot years are like.