Venezuela’s Interim President Juan Guaidó and questionably-elected President Nicolás Maduro are gunning for each other, but with no intention to shoot. In Hollywood, this is called a “Mexican standoff.”
Guaidó is confronting the Maduro government with an army of motivated street protesters. Maduro has deployed a largely unmotivated Venezuelan army. Both leaders currently know that they need to refrain from using violence not only to save themselves, but also their country.
If logic and reason rule, then they will keep their powder dry, come to an accommodation, and peacefully solve the current crisis. Logic and reason, however, rarely rule in such high-stakes gamesmanship.
Forces inside and outside the country are applying great pressure and incentive to break from today’s tense truce. While Maduro and Guaidó make their personal survival calculations, foreign players are doing their own math to get to a political bottom line that works and aligns with their global interests.
For the United States, keeping an American military threat in the wings is meant to intimidate and pressure Maduro to skedaddle. Russia, China and Cuba, on the other hand, are financially and diplomatically invested in keeping Maduro in power while keeping America at bay. This dynamic is playing out as both the Venezuelan government and the opposition claim their side is right, just and legitimate. All parties recognize that global interest in Venezuela has a lot to do with its seemingly limitless oil reserves.
On March 4, Guaidó returned to Caracas after a 10-day absence while in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador, where he sought not only greater legitimacy and international recognition for his interim presidency, but also argued for greater material and humanitarian support for his suffering nation.
Maduro, on the other hand, stayed at home. He knows that any foreign travel likely will be one way, so his staycation is guided by his survival instincts. He knows that he is the only force keeping the Venezuelan military-officer ranks in his corner during this power struggle. If the opposition can entice officers to peel off from Maduro’s government, it would be game over, and the interim Guaidó government could move toward legitimate elections. Timely, free and fair voting would likely bring the extremely popular, U.S.-friendly, anti-Maduro opposition leader Leopoldo López — under house arrest since 2017 — into the Miraflores presidential palace.
But elections seem far off. Even Vice President Mike Pence has given in to the protracted nature of the Venezuelan power struggle and presidential face-off, saying, “There is no timeline” for Maduro to negotiate or abdicate. This is the same Mike Pence who excitedly called Guaidó the night before he made his January move, with the vice president assuring him that America had his back, and that Maduro was toast.
Instead, the Pence call that triggered Guaidó’s presidential ascent was unable to deliver anything other than anti-Maduro rhetoric, the recognition of 50 nations, some symbolic border-delivered containers of humanitarian aid and a few vague promises. The risk? A failure of Venezuela’s popular uprising following solid American assurances could approximate the Cuban Bay of Pigs catastrophe.
Simple reminder: Regime change is hard. Planning matters.
Pence was premature, Pollyanna-ish or both because the stage for wholesale Venezuelan political change was not set: Officers were not ready to defect, the United Nations was not on board and the Russians were not locked out. Instead, the stage was set for the current standoff.
In this situation, if mass protesters resort to widespread rioting or if government forces crack down by cracking heads, the whole country could rapidly devolve into uncontrollable violence. Guaidó would lose the moral high ground and the movement he leads would quickly be characterized as a mobocracy made up of what Maduro calls a “crazed minority” sowing chaos by doing the work of foreign agents.
The confrontation so far has not resulted in mass deaths from direct clashes. But the country is on edge. If it goes over the edge, then Guaidó could kiss the support for his popular national movement goodbye, while Maduro’s future options would no longer include a comfortable exile.
The last scene of this standoff is hard to predict. A few weeks back, it seemed as though the victor could be decided during competing concerts in a Battle of the Bands. Planned opposition protests and government-sponsored counter-protests this weekend will bring heightened tensions to the streets and a greater likelihood that things could accidentally get out of hand.
Unfortunately, Maduro currently thinks he has all the cards, is playing for time and has powerful allies who will back him up as he faces down an opposition that is increasingly behaving as though it has nothing to lose. That is a questionable calculation that can only result in a bad deal and worse nightmare for all.
In the movies, with all guns locked and loaded, someone always takes the first shot. Without sane and timely mediation, this type of movie rarely ends well.
Markos Kounalakis researches democratic movements as a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.