5 Key Questions on the Future of Venezuela

5 Key Questions on the Future of Venezuela
AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

This piece is part of a small RealClearWorld series featuring different points of view on the crisis in Venezuela. The views expressed here are the author's own. Click here to read Julian Adorney's indictment of Chavismo, here to read MEP Dita Charanzová exhort Europe to play a role, and here to read Jason Marczak's piece on the importance of diplomacy.

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With the nullification of the duly elected and opposition-controlled National Assembly, the destruction of Venezuelan democracy is now complete. After months of widespread protests, and with hyperinflation around the corner and living standards plunging, the future looks bleak. But whether we see the consolidation of another Cuba-style dictatorship in the Americas or the restoration of democracy and stability in Venezuela will largely be determined by simultaneous developments across five principal areas.

Can Street Protests Be Sustained?

For months, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans fed up with the incompetence and authoritarianism of the regime of President Nicolas Maduro have taken to the streets. More than 125 have been killed in clashes with security forces and armed pro-government gangs, with thousands more injured and arrested. Yet for all their bravery in confronting the heavily armed regime, it is unclear how long opposition forces can sustain the pressure. In recent days they have suffered severe blows to their morale. The Maduro regime’s elimination of the National Assembly, the last vestige of Venezuelan democracy, will make it even less willing to compromise, while increasing repression and deprivation.

Many street protesters -- largely younger Venezuelans who refer to themselves as “the Resistance” -- were dismayed by opposition leaders’ decisions to participate in long-delayed gubernatorial elections scheduled for October. After putting their lives on the line, many feel betrayed by what they see as validation of a regime that has forfeited its legitimacy.  

Will the Regional Response Get Stronger?

A concerted response to Venezuela’s crisis has been slow in coming, but important regional governments have become more assertive in recent weeks. Although a few holdouts sympathetic to the Maduro regime have succeeded in blocking action at the Organization of American States, countries are moving ahead regardless. The trade bloc Mercosur voted to suspend Venezuela, and earlier this month, foreign ministers from 12 countries condemned the rupture of Venezuela’s democratic order.

But most important will be the transition from rhetorical condemnation to the implementation of sanctions. Already, Mexico and Colombia have joined the Trump administration in sanctioning Venezuelan officials for attacks on human rights and democracy. International support and the replication of sanctions will puncture what is left of the regime’s self-perceived legitimacy. To this end, diplomatic efforts such as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s recent trip to Latin America are extremely important.  

Will U.S. Play the Oil Card?

In mid-July, U.S. President Donald Trump warned that the United States would take strong and swift economic actions if Maduro went ahead with the fraudulent Constituent Assembly. Most observers took that to mean sanctions against Venezuela’s critical oil sector, which depends on exports to the United States for most of its revenues. While no oil sanctions were immediately announced, administration officials have made it clear that all economic options are on the table.

Reportedly, the range of options include everything from expanding sanctions to all senior executives at the state oil company PDVSA, to prohibiting U.S. oil exports to Venezuela -- exports used to cut Venezuela’s heavy crude -- and boycotting crude oil imports from Venezuela.  (On Aug. 25, the administration barred trades of Venezuelan debt, prohibiting the Maduro regime and state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela from selling new bonds to Americans or in U.S. financial institutions. )

Clearly, the Trump administration has an array of options on this front short of a total ban on Venezuelan oil.  What it decides to do will necessarily deplete Maduro’s remaining sources of revenue.    

Will Divisions Within Chavismo Grow?

Chavismo has never been monolithic. As the country hurtles toward authoritarianism and deeper privation, it will only intensify pressure on its various factions to remain behind Maduro, with the key actor being the Venezuelan military.

The highest-profile defector from government ranks has been the former public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz. She first spoke out in March against Maduro’s plan to nullify the National Assembly, and she became a fierce critic of the regime’s repression. Unsurprisingly, the first act of Maduro’s fraudulent Constituent Assembly was to fire Ortega and accuse her of “extortion.” Ortega subsequently fled the country. From exile, she will likely continue to reveal what she knows about corruption and drug trafficking among regime officials, further damaging their legitimacy among the Venezuelan people and the international community.

Apart from Chavismo, the big question mark remains the Venezuelan military. As The Economist starkly put it, “[Maduro’s] future will be decided by the armed forces, not directly by the people. If they withdraw support from his beleaguered regime, change will come soon. If not, hunger and repression will continue.”

While the senior officer corps is stacked with regime loyalists afforded special economic privileges or otherwise allowed to profit from collusion with international drug syndicates, mid-level and rank-and-file personnel are not immune to the hardships of the ordinary population. Reports of low morale have been consistent for months. Many concerned about their own fate and disgusted with their corrupt government may be contemplating their unique responsibility to the Constitution.  

Further divisions within Chavismo and in the Venezuelan military in the coming weeks and months are almost inevitable, with dire consequences for the regime’s survival.     

Will Venezuela’s International Enablers Double Down?

Over the past several years, China has been Chavismo’s economic savior, extending more than $62 billion in loans. However, Beijing is said to be re-evaluating its exposure over concerns about the regime’s stability and its ability to repay. (Debt repayments in oil have fallen behind schedule by as much as 10 months.) Still, while China has appeared less willing to write blank checks, it does not appear to be abandoning Venezuela at this time.

Recent reports also suggest Russia may be moving into the breach. According to Reuters, “as Caracas struggles to contain an economic meltdown and violent street protests, Moscow is using its position as Venezuela’s lender of last resort to gain more control over the OPEC nation’s crude reserves.” Russian cash, it reports, has on at least two occasions allowed the Maduro regime to avoid default. In April, the oil company Rosneft provided more than $1 billion in exchange for future oil shipments. Reuters reports that, in total, “Russia and Rosneft have delivered Venezuela at least $17 billion in loans and credit lines since 2006.”

If China and Russia are bankrolling Chavismo, Cuba’s Castro regime has been the intellectual author of Maduro’s uncompromising political stance, in addition to providing critical internal surveillance. Thousands of Cuban intelligence operatives and military advisers permeate the Venezuelan government, rooting out dissent and monitoring officials.  

However, if one thing is clear, it’s that the United States and other important regional governments, in addition to members of the European Union, are for once unified in rejecting the Maduro regime’s usurpation of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. This, more than anything, can rejuvenate the domestic opposition and foster more cracks in Chavismo and the military. What effect that will have on Maduro’s remaining enablers remains to be seen.

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