Venezuela at Boiling Point

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January 2019 Scott Ritter


Whether one calls it a foreign-inspired coup, a popular uprising, or a constitutionally authorized transfer of power, Venezuela's current showdown over who ultimately wields presidential authority has further paralyzed a nation already stricken by a failing socioeconomic system. For the oil industry, a change of government holds out the tantalizing prospect of a reversal of a devastating decline of almost 20 years, but such a recovery still is uncertain and lies a long way off. The Venezuelan crisis has taken on sensitive geopolitical aspects as countries across the region and great power rivals line up behind respective presidents -- the incumbent, Nicolas Maduro, whose re-election a year ago has been challenged over alleged voter suppression, and the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, who recently proclaimed himself president after unilaterally annulling Maduro's election victory. Both Maduro and Guaido have, to date, avoided resorting to violence to resolve their political differences. The situation, however, is fraught with danger as the political temperature nears boiling point. One misstep or deliberate provocation by either a domestic player or foreign power could trigger a civil war in Venezuela that could quickly assume a regional and global character.

How did Venezuela get to this point? The rule of President Nicolas Maduro was contested from the moment he assumed the position of acting president following the death of Hugo Chavez in April 2013. In a national election that was surprisingly close, Maduro won 50.6% of the vote, narrowly edging out his opponent. Maduro's party followed this victory with another, soundly defeating the Venezuelan opposition in municipal elections that solidified Maduro's hold on power. The opposition, chastised at the polls, took to the streets in a wave of protests it hoped would undermine the legitimacy of Maduro's rule, thereby forcing him from office. The resulting violence and unrest ate into Maduro's popularity, and in 2015 his party was decisively defeated by the opposition in elections for the National Assembly, who gained a supermajority of lawmakers that enabled the opposition to effectively challenge Maduro.

Maduro's political allies responded by using the lame duck session following the 2015 National Assembly election to appoint sympathetic judges to the Supreme Tribunal of Justice (STJ), Venezuela's highest court. The STJ proceeded to annul the election of three opposition lawmakers, thereby eliminating the supermajority and restoring Maduro's political hold on power. The opposition swore in the disputed lawmakers in defiance of the STJ, prompting the STJ to strip away the legislative authority of the National Assembly after finding the opposition to be in contempt. Public outcry prompted the STJ to reverse its actions, leading to a reaction from the National Assembly, which sought to strip many of the STJ judges of their authority.

Maduro responded to renewed public unrest motivated in large part by the exhortations of the National Assembly by calling for elections for a Constituent Assembly, which would rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution. Maduro's intent was to use this new body to eliminate the authority of the opposition in the National Assembly. Elections were held in 2017 and, despite very low turnout, the Constituent Assembly was sworn in on Aug. 4, 2017. Within days it granted itself sweeping powers, in effect annulling the National Assembly as a legislative body. The National Assembly in turn refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly. The controversy surrounding the creation of the Constituent Assembly, and its subsequent disenfranchisement of the Venezuelan opposition (the Constituent Assembly banned the major opposition parties from participating in presidential elections, scheduled for January 2018), led to widespread foreign condemnation, as well as the imposition of stringent economic sanctions.

Maduro's election as president in January 2018 was rejected by the Venezuelan opposition, who viewed Maduro's swearing in as lacking constitutional authority. Citing a provision of the Venezuelan Constitution that allows the head of the National Assembly to assume the role of interim president when the office of president is vacant, Juan Guaido swore himself in earlier this month as acting president, setting the stage for the current standoff. Far from a unilateral precipitous power play by Guaido, the move to swear in an interim president was the culmination of years of effort by Venezuela's political opposition to undo the Maduro presidency. While the opposition has operated with the support of many nations around the world, including the US and most of Europe, its actions represent a genuine expression of discontent among a significant percentage of the Venezuelan population, not foreign manipulation. The legitimate domestic roots of the opposition serve as the principal roadblock to decisive intervention by the Venezuelan military, which despite its stated loyalty to President Maduro also remains loyal to the general population from which it derives.

Free Falling

The political crisis gripping Venezuela has been exacerbating the economic free fall it has suffered for the past few years, which has resulted in over three million Venezuelans fleeing their country and the remaining citizens facing eminent social collapse. Many nations, including the US, the EU, Colombia and Brazil, have recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela in part to foster a semblance of political and economic stability, thereby forestalling national and regional calamity. While Maduro's opponents have cited corruption and mismanagement as the root of Venezuela's current dire situation, Maduro places the blame squarely on outside interference, especially in the form of economic sanctions imposed by the US. The fact of the matter is that both sides are correct. The key to Venezuela's political future now lies with the group that can do the best job in winning over the opinion of Venezuela's people and, perhaps more importantly, its military.

While the National Assembly's opposition to Maduro is well understood, the political personality of Juan Guaido is not. This lack of a solid political foundation is the fundamental weakness of the Venezuelan opposition currently. Guaido is in a race to solidify his legitimacy. He is leveraging the wave of international support in his ongoing negotiations with other Venezuelan politicians, including those from Maduro's own party and the Venezuelan military, in an effort to facilitate a peaceful transition of power. Guaido has been assisted in this effort by the US, which recently announced new economic sanctions targeting Venezuela's national oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, and the UK, which has barred access by the Maduro government to $1.2 billion in much-needed gold reserves held at the Bank of England. But these actions represent a double-edged sword because they tend to legitimize Maduro's claim that Venezuela's economic woes are due to foreign interference and, by extension, that Juan Guaido and the Venezuelan opposition are simply the tools of outside powers hostile to Venezuela.

Next Moves

The ultimate fate of Maduro's presidency is not in doubt -- he will more than likely be removed from office. The key question is: how? The US will not abandon Juan Guaido, which means that if Guaido proves unable to generate enough support within Venezuela to compel Maduro to step down peacefully then the US will likely seek to remove him by other means. One of the most effective tools the US has is economic sanctions, particularly those related to the oil industry and international finance. The effectiveness of such sanctions depends partly on whether Maduro's political supporters and the Venezuelan military can be convinced that the best way forward for Venezuela is to have Maduro step aside so that sanctions can be lifted and economic progress restored. However, the decision by the US and others to back Juan Guaido does not sit well with Maduro's international supporters, including Russia and China. While neither of these nations is likely to intervene militarily on the side of Maduro in any future conflict, they have provided an economic lifeline to Maduro, and will most likely continue to do so in the face of renewed economic pressure brought on by the US and EU. If Maduro is able to convert this support into enough domestic political capital to retain the backing of his party and the Venezuelan military, then Guaido's hopes of compelling a peaceful transition appear finished.

The timelines in this calculation are tight. Guaido's continued viability can be measured in days, maybe weeks. If Maduro is able to hold on to power until the end of February, then the most likely avenue for his removal will be violence, either in the form of domestic unrest leading to civil war, outside military intervention, or a combination of the two. While both Colombia and Brazil have publicly stated that there are no preparations under way for military action against the Maduro government, the reality is that every military prepares for contingencies that touch upon the national interest. There is little doubt that the situation in Venezuela directly impacts both Colombia and Brazil. And while Colombia says that it will not allow its territory to be used as a base for US military forces to operate against Venezuela, handwritten notes on a legal pad held by US National Security Adviser John Bolton suggest that the US is in the planning stages of deploying 5,000 troops to Colombia. The deployment by Venezuela of heavy mechanized forces to the Colombia border may signal that the Venezuelan military has cast its vote, and it is not in support of Juan Guaido. Unless Guaido can pull out an unlikely domestic political victory in the next few weeks, the die seems to have been cast in favor of war in some form.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US General Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98.

Security Risk , Sanctions, Alternative View
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