How the Maduro Regime Could Fall

Three Venezuelan scholars abroad, all of them specialists on the mechanics of Latin American authoritarian political systems, offer their different perspectives on the complexities, risks, and possibilities of the dictatorship’s disintegration.

Photo: Forbes, retrieved.

The Potemkim scenario

Ángel E. Álvarez, political consultant and scholar, based in Toronto

“Through history, facts don’t repeat, but comparative sciences allow for seeking common variables and comparable results. In June 1905, the sailors of the Potemkim, a battleship of the Russian Empire, started a mutiny when they were forced to eat rotten food. Fed up with mistreatment, bad leadership and defeats in the war against Japan, they took over the ship and decided to attack the troops that were repressing the people protesting against the government in Odessa. The sailors of the Potemkin killed many civilians by mistake, as Sergei Eisenstein’s classic movie shows, and the rebellion was eventually crushed, but it’s considered a previous step to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

“I remember this for a reason. Following a bad diagnosis of the situation of the state, the Venezuelan opposition has been betting on a vertical fracture throughout the FANB: a traditional coup where a group of generals, with troops and equipment, captures or expels the ruler. That’s not going to happen in Venezuela, because the country is close to a failed state and there are no real Armed Forces as such. The military operational arrest is at its minimum because it was intentionally disabled by Chávez after the attempt against him in April 2002. At the barracks, they’re suffering the same economic and psychic hardships of the rest of the people, except in the High Command so, for me, the most probable scenario is an extension of what we’re already seeing: the troops rebel or leave. We can even see a confrontation between rebels and loyalists, especially if there’s a threat of foreign military intervention. But everyone saw how the Navy threatened to sink a Puerto Rican ship with humanitarian cargo trying to reach Venezuela, and the U.S. did nothing about it. For the moment, Washington is just bluffing about military action against Maduro.

I only see two ways: confrontation, or Maduro’s consolidation, sadly. The choice is not easy for the military.

“This Potemkim scenario, where the troops abandon Maduro, is terrible because it implies that the repressive capacity of the state doesn’t disappear, it’s just transferred from the formal institutions to irregular armed groups, the so-called colectivos. At this moment, the colectivos have way more control over violence and are supposedly able to fight what the regime calls a prolonged popular war, which can make life very hard to any interim government. This is what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“Honestly, I think this scenario is hard to avoid. The regime seems to want to fight till the end, leaving the country only when there’s no other way. I think they discarded negotiations because they’d lose too much in it. So I only see two ways: confrontation, or Maduro’s consolidation, sadly. The choice is not easy for the military, trapped between the heaven of amnesty and the hell of punishment for treason.”

In Eisenstein’s Potemkin, the troops fight their superiors and side with the people.

The needs of foreign actors

Víctor M. Mijares, a researcher on petro-states and professor at Universidad de los Andes, based in Bogotá

“Colombia needs to facilitate a transition in Venezuela, because of the migrants’ impact and the ELN guerrilla in Venezuela. In Colombia, many fear that deeper involvement in Venezuelan affairs could bring new threats. The left accuses President Iván Duque and his mentor, Álvaro Uribe, of using a hard stance against Maduro to accumulate power, and there’s the idea in public opinion that Duque should focus on his country instead. Duque knows that the biggest threat to Colombia’s national security is the Maduro regime, but he’s unable to convince most people to help with the transition. Maduro’s image is terrible in Colombia, and the social tensions and security problems with the Venezuelan migrants are also considerable, but Colombians fear a civil war that spills into their country, so they tend to embrace the status quo. Here in Colombia they’re afraid of kicking the hornet’s nest, due to the polarization in the country.

“Regarding the U.S., it’s true that all options are on its table because Trump has 18 months to show results that can secure success in key ridings like Florida. However, what does his administration mean by ‘use of force’? Well, nothing like many in the opposition imagine, a sort of massive D-Day invasion, or what chavismo likes to think about, mujahidin defending Playa Parguito for years. Venezuela hasn’t been in a war in at least 100 years, and its Armed Forces have no combat experience. This is not the Bush era, Venezuela is not Iraq or Afghanistan, and today, the use of force is most likely intensive, about co-opting individuals within societies to make them act towards change.

“China has a central stage in this drama. Chávez went to the Chinese to disconnect Venezuela from the West and found a way to provide resources to a hungry power in exchange for financing. But China could be easily convinced of a transition. Naturally, the best scenario for China is keeping Maduro, followed by a scenario of chavismo without Maduro: at this moment, Beijing has no incentives to replace him. But the Chinese won’t deploy any force to defend Maduro and they’re sure any future government will need them.

If there’s a transition in Venezuela, it’ll happen along with the U.S., Colombia, and Brazil, though Russia will use its many options to destabilize it.

“Russia, on the contrary, has very clear objectives against the U.S. and the West, and Maduro is to Putin a beachhead in the Americas. There are also businesses, most of them illicit, between Miraflores and the Kremlin, in overpriced weapon sales for instance, and the Russian interests in the Orinoco Strip, currently producing more oil than the Chinese companies. There’s a network of private interests under the geopolitical relationship. However, Russia has little real capacity of projecting power beyond the fearsome hybrid war, with highly trained armed groups that dominate restricted spaces, and black propaganda. So, if there’s a transition in Venezuela, it’ll happen along with the U.S., Colombia, and Brazil, though Russia will use its many options to destabilize it, from Rosneft’s investments to the influence of the TV channel Russia Today.  

“I don’t think many things will happen this March. The Lima Group pulled the brake because its leaders are afraid of being criticized in their countries for promoting a military intervention. When Venezuelans feel the impact of the U.S. sanctions on oil exports, they chavista propaganda will have all the arguments to feed its narrative of economic war. Possibly, the migrants will flood the Andes again. I think this will be very slow and will take all of 2019… if Maduro doesn’t get the best news of all for him: an impeachment against Trump.”

The decisive fracture

Jorge Lazo Cividanes, professor of political Latin American History at the University of Ottawa

“The 1990 transition in Chile is frequently mentioned as a possible model for Venezuela, but we seldom hear an important detail on that process: there were so many acts of violence committed by the Chilean far-left, that a tacit ally of the Pinochet’s dictatorship decided to promote democratization in order to avoid the country’s descent into revolution. So this key ally, the U.S. government, ended up pushing for an outcome against Pinochet’s desires.

“Another thing is that Pinochet’s was a military government, and this is not the case in Venezuela, not even with Chávez. In Latin America, governments of the Armed Forces justify themselves as processes to restore order and therefore tend to be brief, though some military rulers stay for decades. Chavismo is instead a populist hegemonic movement, like Argentinean peronismo. We don’t see in Venezuela a strong influence of the armed institution, compared to the dictatorships in Chile or Argentina. We didn’t see it with Chávez and is even smaller with Maduro. There are many military men in the government, but for other reasons. However, the end of the Maduro regime will occur through a fracture within the military support. Let me explain why.  

“All dictatorships have two main sources of power: the economic resources at its disposal, and its political resources, the ideological base that justifies the existence of the regime, that provides its legitimacy. That’s how a dictatorship controls the territory and represses the opposition. Chávez identified the sources of power he needed: the private sector (which he wiped out), the military (which he controlled), and PDVSA (which he took over). Maduro has nothing to fear from the private sector because it barely exists, but he has only a precarious control of FANB and is increasingly unable to finance the bureaucracy. Maduro is only there due to the weakness of his opponents, and what’s left of this control of the repressive apparatus.

“So far, Maduro keeps the support of his allies, a civilian sector, which I don’t think is driven by ideology but by ambition; an international network built with the Soviet-made Cuban know-how on using foreign institutions like the UN; and a military elite connected to the dictator through licit and illicit businesses. I don’t consider colectivos because, as Hugo Carvajal said, the Armed Forces can neutralize them if they set their mind to it. The Armed Forces give Maduro the control he may have on the repressive apparatus, this is his source of power. If Maduro loses the support of the military, he loses his power, because power is the capacity to be obeyed.

“Breaking these alliances, producing that fracture, is the only way to make dictatorships fall. I don’t underestimate Maduro or the Cubans, but I find very difficult that he could recover the control he had until January. His regime has been fracturing already.

“What could happen from now on? My job is not to forecast phenomena, and several rationalities, not a single one, could decide one outcome instead of others, but we can see a trend. Peru’s Alberto Fujimori resisted the massive protests after the rigged election of 2000, but he lost his power when he lost his trust in Vladimiro Montesinos, and therefore the alliance was broken. Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner was suddenly betrayed by a close friend, a general who ended up as the first elected president of the democratic transition. Surprising defections like (former Attorney General) Luisa Ortega’s were not enough to oust Maduro, but some defection in the future (weeks, months, who knows) will be the decisive fracture. History doesn’t stop.”