It’s not easy succeeding Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s late populist autocrat who was known as much for his spontaneous singing on state television as his legacy of hyperinflation and concentrated executive power. His appointed heir, Nicolas Maduro, has confounded predictions of his ouster since he took office in 2013. Juan Guaido, the 35-year old head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, named himself the country’s interim president on January 23 in protest of Maduro’s inauguration for a second term earlier that month, after elections in May 2018 which were widely seen as illegitimate. Mr Guaido’s declaration has initiated the most sustained challenge yet posed to Venezuela’s hapless government. He has secured recognition from upwards of 50 countries, including Venezuela’s democratic neighbours, which are considering options for a political handover under the auspices of the Lima Group.
The shift to a democratic government in Venezuela is far from foreordained. Analysts agree that stakeholders, chiefly the military, require a plan that grants them a role and an income in the new system to prompt defections. Mr Guaido has endorsed a military amnesty, a common variable in other successful democratic transitions. An excessively generous amnesty could be rejected by the public, however, and could also violate international requirements that human rights abusers be brought to justice. These abuses are ongoing, and were most recently displayed by the government’s refusal in February to allow aid convoys border passage in order to feed starving Venezuelans.
Another impediment to a peaceful transition is presented by great power manoeuvring at Venezuela’s expense. The United States, China and Russia all have interests in the conflict. The US has been urged to restrict its involvement to humanitarian aid and logistical support to the opposition, given the imperial hangover which clouds its credibility in the region. China has been the ancien regime’s chief patron, and stands to lose valuable oil-for-infrastructure agreements if the opposition takes power. Russia, for its part, has championed a UN resolution that would leave both political power and control of aid flows in the hands of Venezuela’s discredited government.
Venezuela’s window for an orderly changeover is closing. If Venezuelan democrats prevail, their success will be due more to collaboration with their neighbours than to the benevolence of strangers.
This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at https://www.axcoinfo.com/axco-flashpoints-signup.aspx