PGI INSIGHT: Ongoing instability in Venezuela expected regardless of leadership
- Regime change in Venezuela remains likely in the coming months due to increased domestic and international pressure against President Nicolas Maduro.
- Maduro’s administration has survived previous bouts of mass unrest and external pressure, but the ascension of a strong opposition leader and the direct involvement of the US have changed the landscape of Venezuela’s political crisis.
- Despite opposition attempts to gather support from the military against Maduro, the armed forces still back the current president and an orderly regime change is unlikely under this condition.
- Though Maduro’s principal allies, Russia and China are unlikely to directly or militarily intervene in the crisis, there is the possibility, particularly form Russia, of the application of subversive insurgency tactics against the opposition.
Social tensions have considerably increased in Venezuela since President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second term in office on 10 January. Opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaido has reunited a fragmented opposition and challenged the legitimacy of Maduro as president.
In a major escalation, Guaido appointed himself as acting president on 23 January and called on Maduro to resign. He also sought international support for his self-declared role as acting president and has tried to convince the military to abdicate support for Maduro. Since then, Venezuela has experienced frequent mass anti-Maduro protests, small incidents of police rebellion and the defection of some high-ranking military officials.
Regime change: Contributing factors
The influence of the military has been paramount for the survival of Maduro as president and no orderly regime change can take place in Venezuela without the support of the armed forces. In an attempt to consolidate power, Maduro has since 2014 promoted several military officers and given them control of key economic interests such as the state-owned oil company PDVSA. Some reports estimate that Venezuela has about 3,000 Generals commanding about 150,000 military personnel in the country.
Maduro has also allowed high-ranking soldiers and other public officials to profit from illicit activity, such as drug trafficking and illegal gold mining.
The current anti-government protest movement differs considerably from previous bouts of mass unrest that Maduro has suppressed with the security and paramilitary forces. Key differences include:
- Caracas increasingly isolated since 2017: Right-wing governments hostile to Maduro have replaced left-wing administrations previously allied with Venezuela, notably in Brazil and Chile.
- Unified opposition: Guaido has reunited a fragmented opposition movement, which was weakened by internal struggles for power and fading public support prior to the 2018 presidential elections.
- Strong international support: Guaido has mobilised a strong international coalition led by the US. This has increased pressure on Maduro in the form of sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector, pressure on the country’s creditors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and controls on international financial transactions that make it difficult for Maduro’s domestic allies to access funds abroad.
Regime change: Impact and consequences
Although there is no indication of a major shift in military support towards Guaido, external and internal pressure will likely see military support for Maduro gradually fade as Guaido and his allies’ tactics become effective.
If Maduro loses the support of key military allies supporting his government, the most likely scenario is an orderly regime change with the deposition or resignation of Maduro. This would provide a more stable regime change compared to a military intervention. However, it could potentially have destabilising implications for Venezuela’s political and security environment due to the following factors:
- Military factions: Even if deposed, Maduro is likely to maintain the support of some ideologically aligned military officers as well as officials not affected by pressure and sanctions. This could considerably increase the risk of a civil war in Venezuela or a future military coup.
- Local militias: Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez have empowered and armed hundreds of thousands of militants as well as quasi-militia groups known as “Coletivos.” These loyalist groups control important neighbourhoods in Caracas and other major cities. Disarming these groups will prove problematic since they are ideologically aligned with Maduro. These militias could emerge as future insurgents in a chaotic or contested post-Maduro era.
- Colombian rebels: Maduro and his allies have allowed Colombian criminal and rebel groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) to operate in Venezuela. The ELN in particular is known to perpetrate attacks against oil infrastructure in Colombia. Given the ELN and EPL’s operations near important oil pipelines in Venezuela these group could potentially become active and target Venezuela’s oil infrastructure in case of a US-aligned administration.
- Foreign backers: Russia and China have invested billions in energy, infrastructure and arms sales to support Maduro in recent years. Russia is unlikely to intervene militarily in Venezuela, but Moscow could use asymmetric tactics, like funding local militias, to destabilise an opposition-led government.
However, domestic and international pressure could fail to force Maduro from office. Sanctions and international pressure rarely result in regime change, as evidenced by Iran and North Korea, which have long faced much tougher restrictions. This is particularly true when the targeted country has powerful allies such as Russia and China that can help mitigate the impact of sanctions. If Maduro remains in office, Venezuela will likely see continued unrest and instability. The situation could further escalate due to:
- Social Factors: Large-scale and other minor anti-Maduro protests are likely to continue in the coming weeks, while the opposition and its foreign backers push for Maduro’s removal. In response, the government is likely to increasingly use the military and militias to crackdown on dissent.
- Economic factors: The US and other anti-Maduro countries may increase sanctions against Venezuela, leading to further economic disruption, shortages of goods and deteriorating social conditions. This is likely to lead to increased levels of civil unrest across the country, which may potentially exacerbate the migrant crisis in Latin America, leading to further geopolitical tensions.
- Geopolitical factors: Maduro is likely to increase support for Colombian rebel groups and drug gangs operating in Venezuela to destabilise his rivals and raise funds. The US is also likely to increase the number of troops in Colombia in an attempt to pressure Maduro. Venezuela and Colombia have a history of border violations and heightened tensions could make a military miscalculation more likely.
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