Venezuela's political stalemate continues - January 2020

Juan Guaido reelected as the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly after Maduro’s security forces block the congressional building.

The Maduro vs. Guaido stalemate continues

The last year in Venezuela has seen a stalemate. Guaido has not been able to force out Maduro. Maduro has not been able to get rid of Guaido. At every previous critical junction including February 2019’s humanitarian aid push and the 30 April uprising, moments in which it felt one side should come out on top, both sides survived and the stalemate continued. Even as various actors appear anxious for major change in early 2020, the most likely immediate outcome of yesterday’s events is the stalemate continuing.

Maduro failed to defeat Guaido

By a vote of 100-0 (out of 167 total legislators), Juan Guaido was reelected as the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly (AN). The vote took place late in the afternoon at the offices of El Nacional newspaper after security forces blocked Guaido and other lawmakers from his coalition from entering the National Assembly building. Images of Guaido attempting to jump the fence to enter the National Assembly and being pulled back by security forces circulated widely on social media.

In full gaslighting mode, de facto President Maduro claims that Guaido refused to show up for the vote and was defeated by Luis Parra, a member of the National Assembly accused of taking bribes. No recorded vote took place as a majority of the AN members were not able to enter the building. Parra says that he has taken over the opposition leadership and is opening up negotiations with Maduro.

As I wrote in a newsletter on 18 December, Maduro and Guaido fight over the votes National Assembly leadership because the image of legitimacy matters to both. In recent weeks, Maduro used a combination of bribes, threats and propaganda to attempt to divide the Guaido coalition and defeat the current de jure president. That effort by Maduro failed. Knowing Guaido would win with a large margin, Maduro used security forces to take over the National Assembly building and block the vote. 

Maduro’s actions reunited Guaido’s coalition

If Maduro had hoped to improve his own image of legitimacy by blocking Guaido and rigging a vote to get a more pliable National Assembly leader, the move almost certainly backfired. 

Venezuelans and the world saw Maduro spend time and resources in an almost comic attempt to block the National Assembly from voting. They saw Guaido manage to pull together 100 votes in spite of the actions. In recent months, Guaido’s coalition was fracturing and his leadership was in question. Maduro’s actions appear to have restored the unity behind Guaido and confirmed his role as Maduro’s leading opponent.

Though he was blocked from the National Assembly building, Guaido still has freedom of movement, able to travel around much of the country and meet with citizens. Though Maduro has control of most of the security forces and uses repression with impunity, the de facto leader is unable or unwilling to arrest or kill Guaido. In contrast to Guaido’s freedom of movement, Maduro remains relatively confined to secure locations with heavy security presence as he fears going out in his own country.

The international community continues to support Guaido

The European Union, US, and the Lima Group coalition of Latin American countries announced that they continue to support Guaido’s claim to the presidency. Argentina, while it did not sign with the Lima Group, published its own statement criticizing the Maduro regime’s actions. Mexico’s government issued a bland statement that did not offer any real position.

In previous newsletters I have indicated that backtracking on support for Guaido would be a sign of weakness. Yesterday’s events were an opportunity for countries to backtrack on their support of Guaido and support Parra instead. None took the bait. 

Russia is getting impatient

Both the Caracas Chronicles Political Risk Report and Bloomberg reported last week that Russia was placing significant pressure on Maduro to remove Guaido from power. Russia/Rosneft has engaged in a virtual takeover of PDVSA, assisted in sanctions evasion, and is behind the scenes pushing Maduro’s recent economic reform policies including dollarization.

Two other sources in Venezuela interviewed by Hxagon provided a similar view of Russia’s role in the current events. Russia is looking for a deal that solidifies its hold on Venezuela’s oil sector under any future administration and reduces the impact of US sanctions on the oil sector’s profitability. According to sources, Russia is willing to accept a leader other than Maduro who agrees to their terms. They think Guaido’s opposition to Maduro is holding back their ability to negotiate a deal that is both acceptable to Russia and that the international community including the Trump administration will recognize as legitimate.

While Guaido is strengthened among his own coalition, Russia likely views the confusion over yesterday’s events as a victory in terms of international media. Competing headlines over whether Guaido was reelected or he was removed from the AN in place of the Maduro-backed Parra play right into a typical disinformation strategy of throwing many narratives against the wall to generate distrust on all sides. 

More (limited) US sanctions are on the way

US officials were swift to praise the reelection of Guaido and denounce Maduro’s blockade of the AN. In the short term, the US will almost certainly announce new sanctions against Luis Parra and others who participated in Maduro’s attempt to rig the National Assembly election. Few believe those sanctions will push those defectors from the Guaido coalition to change their minds again. 

More importantly, the US has sectoral sanctions decisions coming soon including waivers for oil companies. Expanding those sanctions could have an economic impact on Maduro’s ability to finance his regime. They can also be leverage in future negotiations. However, there is significant opposition to expanding sectoral sanctions on a number of fronts ranging from humanitarian concerns from groups on the left to concerns about profit from groups of Republican Party donors on the right. 

The US is currently pressuring Europe and Latin America to take a tougher line on Maduro. While other countries may be willing to expand and coordinate individual sanctions, they have not yet shown any interest in joining on sectoral sanctions.

Guaido has few options 

Even if the events of the past 24 hours renewed Guaido’s claim to leadership, his next moves are not particularly obvious. He is unable to enter the National Assembly, depriving him of the geographic symbolism, even if most still recognize his claim to be in charge of it. Recent events have strengthened opposition hardliners against any form of negotiation. Low level protests continue across the country, particularly among government employees, but attempts to organize large-scale protests have shown a diminished capacity.

Guaido’s team needs to think outside the box and use this brief moment of increased political capital to whatever advantage they can. 

Additional thoughts moving forward

  • Turbulence - The first four months of the year are usually the rockiest for Venezuelan politics. If this January to April is anything like the same time frame in 2019, the coming weeks are going to see a lot of unexpected twists and turns. 

  • Elections - Maduro has promised new legislative elections later this year. Guaido’s side is not going to participate without some concessions in terms of conditions of the elections and a pathway for the transition of the executive branch. At the same time, another “moral victory” by boycotting the election and driving turnout lower simply continues the current stalemate.

  • Protests - Protests from organizations outside the Guaido coalition remain likely, especially with the increasing economic divide caused by dollarization (the Bolivar has dropped again in recent weeks). These protests and their ad-hoc leadership aren’t captured in the typical media coverage or social media debate, but they remain a key point of pressure on Maduro.

  • Money - Maduro is running out of money (a key point in Hxagon’s analysis of Maduro’s ability to remain in office in 2020). That is caused largely by his own economic mismanagement, while sectoral sanctions have contributed to the economic challenges his regime has faced in the past year. Maduro’s declining resources and Russian pressure on him to fix the situation likely forced him into poor decisions regarding the AN yesterday and will continue to pressure him in the coming months.

  • Personnel - With Guaido’s coalition looking more stable today than it did last month, analysts should question how stable Maduro’s circle of power is. There were minimal defections in 2019, but rumors of power struggles and attempts to obtain power continue today. Playing the Kremlinology analysis game comes with a lot of risks (many rumors and few verified facts), but when things tip in Venezuela, it will likely be driven by a divide within the Maduro coalition. 

Thanks for reading!

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