If it seems impossible that Venezuela’s government could have remained in power nearly two years into the country’s self-imposed economic collapse, consider that Naunihal Singh, a leading expert on power transitions and coups, is just as baffled as everyone else.
“It’s just perplexing,” Singh said. “It shouldn’t be in anybody’s interests for the country to get destabilized to this extent and for this many people to starve.”
A hint as to why the crisis has stretched on lies in the growing dispute over legitimacy, just the latest sign of a monthslong deadlock over the country’s future.
Both Nicolás Maduro, the president, and Juan Guaidó, an opposition lawmaker who has pointed to Maduro’s widely disputed election victory, claim to be Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Military leaders, political elites, protesters and foreign governments have all weighed in.
Disputes like this often emerge when countries face crises that can unseat the government. But they are not really about legitimacy, experts say.
Rather, they are elaborate games of maneuvering and signaling among military leaders, civilian leaders and foreign governments who have the power to determine the country’s fate — but only if enough of them can come together to force their way.
When those powerful actors consider their options — a coup, a unity government, a peaceful transition, or reinforcing the status quo leader — they choose whatever will secure their interests and win enough support from other powerful actors to succeed.
“Legitimacy is used to wrap a bow on an option afterward, rather than to select the option,” Singh said.
That process has broken down in Venezuela.
The political establishment is fractured. Foreign governments, including the United States and Russia, hold conflicting, zero-sum agendas that prevent them from coming together. Even Venezuelan citizens — who would have to be sold on any new government for it to survive — remain divided. Some, particularly among the poor, still back the ideals of Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chávez.
Winning Over the Military
The complex gamesmanship among Venezuela’s leaders is clearest in their competing appeals for the loyalty of the military.
“The military’s withdrawal of support from Mr. Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government,” Guaidó, the opposition leader, wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed, adding a promise of “amnesty to all those who are found not guilty of crimes against humanity.”
Such signals can be more credible when made publicly, binding those offering such assurances to their word.
But Maduro may have more to offer. He is thought to have granted the military control of drug-smuggling routes among other income sources. This also makes it harder for officers to defect, knowing that a different government could bring criminal prosecutions.
It’s a time-tested tactic. When the president of Gambia, a small West African country, refused to step down after losing the 2016 election, citizens, elites and foreign governments turned against him. But the military stuck by him, in part because he had used those forces to crack down, exposing the brass to jail time if he ever lost power. The military’s vote was so decisive that the crisis was resolved only when several nearby countries invaded.
Deadlocked Foreign Powers
Militaries are not always the ones to resolve crises like Venezuela’s. In many cases, foreign allies or mediators step in.
Even when militaries do decide the outcome, they often seek the blessing of foreign powers who can ensure that the new government will be welcomed as legitimate.
When the United States declared Egypt’s president no longer legitimate in 2011, the military correctly took that as a signal that it could oust him without angering the Americans. Zimbabwe’s military is widely suspected to have sought approval from China, a major investor, to remove President Robert Mugabe in 2017.
But Venezuela is pulled between two sets of foreign governments that want very different things, making it nearly impossible for any Venezuelan leader or group to have confidence that it will win international approval.
On one side, the United States and a number of Latin American countries, including Brazil, Venezuela’s largest neighbor, have declared Guaidó the interim leader. On the other are Cuba, a longtime ally, and Russia, which support Maduro.
A Divided Governing Class
No leader is all-powerful. He or she must always rule through networks of party officials, political power brokers and business leaders, who together constitute the civilian elite.
At times, that class of people can persuade or force their leader to change course. Business elites in apartheid-era South Africa, fearing that international isolation would destroy the economy, helped persuade the leadership to transition to democracy. In Zimbabwe, Mugabe’s own political party worked with the military to remove him.
But Venezuela’s ruling class has been unable to come together, either in support of Maduro or in opposition to him.
The international deadlock means that none of Venezuela’s power brokers can credibly promise the rest of Venezuela’s elites that they will win consensus among world leaders for any plan — making virtually any move seem too risky to pursue.
Years of polarization between the political right and left, whipped up by Chávez, have divided Venezuela’s governing class. Even if few are happy with the status quo, years of distrust make it difficult for them to cooperate. And it may make members of Maduro’s leftist government fearful of a rightward turn should they allow a change.