The U.S. Holds the Keys to a New Venezuela
“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The ongoing political crisis in Venezuela reached new heights in January when Juan Guaido — opposition leader and President of Venezuela’s National Assembly — declared last year’s re-election of current strongman, Nicolas Maduro, illegitimate and, pending free and fair elections, took office as its constitutionally-mandated Interim President.
In a January Washington Post op-ed written with prosecutorial precision, Guaido outlined the constitutional case for Maduro’s ouster. This outline balanced traditional notions of justice with institutional safeguards in the constitution that both directly (i.e. the removal of the President and role of the legislature) and indirectly (i.e. the promotion of human rights, the defense of democracy, and the roles of citizens) supported the action taken by the National Assembly in ruling against Maduro.
Venezuela is in dire straits. Governed by expropriatory state institutions and a corrupt command economy, hyperinflation has led to brutal shortages in food and supplies, a mass exodus of working professionals, the crushing of dissent, and a humanitarian catastrophe defined by poverty, disease, and scarcity.
The facts are stunning: just last year, reports showed that roughly 90% of Venezuelans lived in poverty and the average weight loss (presumably malnutrition-caused) was 24 pounds. Maduro’s Venezuela is a Hobbesian paradox: an absolute state that exists to “maintain order” but has itself slipped into a state of war; and its people’s lives right now? Nasty, brutish, and short.
One broad but effective policy — promoting external legitimacy and using the U.S. economic toolbox to shift the internal balance of power from Maduro to Guaido — can successfully end this era of suffering under a crony dictatorship and catalyze the birth of a new liberal democracy.
Diplomatic recognition is a necessary but insufficient condition for regime legitimacy
Almost immediately after Guaido’s declaration, the world’s multipolar nature became apparent, and what should normally have been a regional power struggle took on global dimensions. Traditional regime allies like China, Russia, and, recently, Turkey, stood publicly behind Maduro and cautioned against the notion of Western intervention in Latin America.
Conversely, neighboring Latin American countries, as well as liberal democracies such as Canada, the European Union, and the United States, recognized Guaido’s rivalling claim to power. Almost reminiscent of the Cold-War era straddling of the East-West divide, Venezuela has now become the newest “tinder-box” in international relations.
Since Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s interim leader by most regional and Western powers, he has possessed the external legitimacy necessary to conduct foreign relations, while grappling with the task of rebuilding his broken nation. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once said that “diplomatic recognition gives the recognized regime valuable rights and privileges, and [by the U.S.] much added prestige and influence at home and abroad.” But these “rights” and “privileges” are conditional.
Maduro still maintains his grip on power, currently holding a monopoly over the daily operations of the Venezuelan state apparatus and instruments of power, including the government bureaucracies, economic and political institutions, and, most importantly, the military and police. To the average Venezuelan, it does not matter if their leader is recognized by the United States, but rather that they have food on the table, medicine in their cupboards, and freedom from persecution and prosecution. These basic facts will not change until a new government and new institutions are put in place, even if the opposition is recognized as legitimate. Only then will Guaido possess internal legitimacy. The formation of a new government and institutions, however, will not take place until the military support Guaido.
It is therefore disingenuous to argue that he is the legitimate leader until he takes control of the domestic situation, so the question that remains is: how does Guaido and his future democratic regime successfully take complete control? One answer to this question eventually comes down to the role the United States is willing to play.
Continuing U.S. economic power may be vital to Guaido’s claim to power
Economic hard power, in the form of sanctions on state industries, as well as soft power, in the form of relief aid for the evolving humanitarian crisis, are both necessary. U.S. sanctions have targeted PDVSA, the state-controlled petroleum giant, through restrictions on the company’s ability to do business with American companies, which are major buyers of Venezuelan oil, as well as major producers of naphtha (a “diluent” used to promote the flow of heavy Venezuelan oil through pipelines). Sanctions have also targeted certain individuals, both in the government and in industry.
The effects of these sanctions are mind-boggling: in January, when they were imposed, the Venezuelan oil industry — with production at just above 1 million barrels per day — was already weakened due to the economic chaos. Elliot Abrams, the Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, recently predicted that production levels would drop to less than 500,000 barrels per day by the end of 2019. Venezuela is looking to other countries like India to replace the U.S. as a major importer of oil. These quests, however, are futile given the number of firms in the U.S. demanding Venezuelan oil and the necessity of naphtha to Venezuelan production processes.
But why are these “shocks” to the system important? From a superficial level, they are hurting Venezuela’s economy. But at a deeper and more institutional level, they are causing a shift in the balance of power between those loyal to Guaido and those loyal to Maduro. Political loyalty in Venezuela has been said to be premised on a patron-client basis, with political leaders, military officials, and bureaucrats all benefiting from the state-owned oil cartel, as well as unofficial illicit drug operations. With the devastating sanctions, the possibility of senior business and political leadership abandoning their loyalty to Maduro and joining Guaido is increasingly likely, as their assets are targeted by the U.S. Treasury department only for the duration of their loyalty to Maduro. Furthermore, as the distribution of resources shifts towards Guaido, the military — a key player in Maduro’s hold on power — will face increasing pressure domestically as well as internationally (as has been done by the U.S.) to shift allegiances.
At the same time, U.S. foreign aid plays an extremely large role in public diplomacy efforts to weaken the Maduro regime. Maduro is currently blocking U.S. aid from entering the country, with spurious claims that it is contaminated. U.S. military aircraft, though, has recently been delivering supplies to the Colombian border city of Cucuta, where many refugees reside, and where American and Guaido-affiliated officials hope to send in food and hygiene products through an armada of volunteers. U.S. foreign aid can, first and foremost, ameliorate the humanitarian crisis, and secondly, show that Guaido can deliver a better standard of living for the Venezuelan people.
Until all the instruments of power, economic, military, and diplomatic, are in the hands of Guaido, it appears that he has pulled off a coup de théâtre instead of a coup d’etat
Neither Guaido nor Maduro has emerged in recent days as the definitive leader of the resource-laden South American nation, and the Venezuelan state has become a tale of two regimes, with Guaido the de jure leader, in accordance with the law, and Maduro the de facto, true, but not officially sanctioned. No one knows for certain the final outcome of the crisis, but the writing is on the wall: Maduro’s legitimacy is grounded not in the will of his people but in his military, and such a situation is not sustainable.