In Venezuela, all eyes — the opposition’s as well as the government’s — are on Trump

In Venezuela, all eyes — the opposition’s as well as the government’s — are on Trump

Robert Malley and Robert Fadel write:

It’s hard for the two sides in Venezuela’s political conflict to agree on virtually anything, what with dueling presidents, competing institutions, and diametrically opposed visions. But in a brief visit to Caracas this week, we found broad consensus on one point: It all depends on Donald Trump.

The Venezuelan crisis is not new. President Nicolás Maduro and those immediately around him bear primary responsibility: They’ve badly mismanaged the country, trampled its democratic institutions, stage-managed elections, benefited from massive corruption, and brutally repressed protesters. The consequences are plain to see, if almost impossible to fathom. Although Venezuela is home to the world’s largest oil reserves, its economy is in free fall.

The country faces widespread poverty, malnutrition, and diseases that not long ago had been eradicated. At least 3 million of its citizens—probably far more—have fled, to Colombia and elsewhere. The two sides engaged in various rounds of negotiations, but the political situation reached an impasse. The government stripped the opposition-dominated National Assembly of any power; the bulk of the opposition boycotted the presidential elections and refused to recognize the newly reelected president.

Enter the Trump administration. Working with leading opposition members and building on growing popular unrest, it worked out a straightforward strategy: Recognize Juan Guaidó, chairman of the National Assembly, as the legitimate president; grant him international support as well as access to foreign oil revenues and assets; impose crippling sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector; and convince Venezuela’s military and other key regime constituencies that they have everything to lose by backing Maduro, and much to gain by lining up behind Guaidó, who, after presiding over an interim government, and bolstered by U.S. economic largesse, would organize new elections. The bet is that the members of Venezuela’s military and political elite will turn against Maduro once he no longer can provide them with the financial benefits they’ve become accustomed to.

Unlike most of President Trump’s gambits, this one was not the product of an errant tweet. Judging by the speed with which an impressive number of other governments followed the U.S. lead, the decision was well coordinated and planned. Now all it needs to do is succeed.

Viewed from Caracas, however, the future looks a tad more uncertain. Guaidó backers we met celebrate what they see as a perfect storm. The opposition appears more united than ever and enjoys unprecedented international and regional backing. Venezuela is suffering through an economic crisis of almost mythic proportions that the vast majority of Venezuelans blame on Maduro. The opposition leader is enjoying sky-high popularity. And there is no evident way out for an embattled president whose situation—economically, politically, diplomatically—they assume will only deteriorate with time.

Dig a little deeper, however, and even pro-Guaidó politicians admit they have little confidence that this will end peacefully or according to plan. [Continue reading…]

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