Since Juan Guaidó made his claim to the presidency of Venezuela on Jan. 23, the United States has done just about everything it can to lend gravitas to his leadership and force dictator Nicolás Maduro from power. Working with allies, the U.S. Treasury has cut off revenue from U.S. distributor CITGO to Petroleos de Venezuela, the state-run oil company. It has imposed financial sanctions to freeze the assets of corrupt leaders, revoked U.S. visas for regime officials, recognized those named by Guaidó as ambassadors of the interim government in Caracas, and pre-positioned much-needed humanitarian aid along the Colombian and Brazilian borders to deliver to desperate Venezuelans.
Nevertheless, Maduro appears entrenched, belying optimistic predictions (à la Bashar al-Assad) that his days are numbered. At this moment, the number of countries that have recognized Guaidó (more than 50) exceeds the number of high-level defectors, and the military rebellion U.S. policymakers hope for has yet to take shape. Earlier reports indicated that Washington had reached out to several generals, but Trump administration officials have publicly denied this strategy, lest they be accused of meddling with security forces.
On Thursday, retired general Hugo Carvajal, indicted on U.S. drug smuggling charges, became the most important officer to break with Maduro. Going forward, U.S. tactics ought to focus squarely on drawing away Venezuelan military officers with capable troops under their command. Washington must also ensure that opposition politicians resist the instinct to accept a fruitless dialogue with the regime.
For his part, Guaidó clearly understands the military’s role in either keeping Maduro in power or in ushering a transition to democracy. The National Assembly has held clandestine meetings with military and security officers and offered a broad amnesty for all but the most heinous crimes and human rights abuses. But a mere amnesty may not be sufficient inducement to military officers who are motivated by fear or greed.
Although the upper echelon of the military has remained nominally loyal to Maduro, he knows that the bulk of the armed forces cannot be counted on. After street protests challenged the Maduro regime in 2014 and 2017, the regular army was never unleashed on protesters, even as National Guard forces grew exhausted. Understanding he cannot rely on the Army, Maduro utilizes armed gangs and a special police unit, the Special Actions Forces (FAES), to terrorize communities—conducting door-to-door raids, indiscriminately spraying communities with bullets, and rounding up suspected participants in protests. Notably, hillside slums that were once bastions of support for Chavismo have endured the brunt of this repression.
Reliance on the FAES signals a growing mistrust between Maduro and his armed forces. In most authoritarian states facing large-scale protests, there comes a time when the dictator issues an order to crush dissent. The question is then whether the army will use deadly force against innocent protesters, or turn its guns on the dictator himself. For the time being, the effectiveness of the paramilitary groups (“colectivos”) and FAES spares Maduro from having to depend on the military for his survival. After all, any mass insubordination in the military ranks could signal fatal weakness and catalyze an uprising.
U.S. attempts to induce defections are complicated by the Cuban surveillance ring around Venezuela’s military, spying on officers from the rank-and-file up to the high command. Any whiff of defection carries significant personal costs for an officer and his family. (Officers accused of organizing a rebellion were tortured last year to set an example.) This dynamic also ensures that whoever is contemplating defection will engage in acts of false signaling and public maneuvering—meaning the United States should be aware that Venezuelan generals are likely more open to defection than their public statements suggest.
The United States should work with Guaidó and the opposition to target specific generals, rather than depending on broad appeals made through social media. In the push to facilitate a swift return to democracy, U.S. engagement can also provide guarantees that the demands of transitional justice are not discarded by ensuring that the most egregious thieves, narcotraffickers, and human rights abusers eventually face justice.
Crucially, 2019 marks the final year in which most of Venezuela’s generals will have received some military training from US counterparts; hereafter, only Cuban-trained officers will rise to that rank. Older generals with ties to the United States may be more open to defection, while their Cuban-trained counterparts are more likely to reject such appeals.
The U.S. campaign to urge defections is not an invitation for a military coup, as some on the left have characterized it. Instead, it is an honest recognition that the military has a critical role in whether Guaidó’s constitutional presidency succeeds in facilitating a peaceful transition. The United States is not going to assist the opposition in defecting its way to victory, but an assiduous effort to flip generals may be destabilizing enough to prove decisive for a transition to democracy. Washington has risked a great deal in placing its confidence in Guaidó -- failure is not an option at this point.
Ryan C. Berg is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where his research includes Latin American foreign policy issues. The views expressed are the author’s own.