Tension points in the coming eight months in Venezuela overlap with US political shifts

September/October – The Trump administration plans to end exceptions that allow Maduro to swap crude for diesel fuel. This is likely to increase fuel shortages, power outages and hunger as food cannot be moved around the country.

November – The political situation in the US means the best case scenario is a messy and combative transition in Washington. Even as sanctions continue, US politics will limit the country’s influence for a few critical months in Venezuela. This will give other actors an opportunity for bigger influence. That includes Venezuela’s immediate neighbors, the EU, Russia, China and Turkey.

December – Venezuela’s legislative elections may or may not be held. It remains possible that the election is postponed due to the pandemic or due to ongoing negotiations over the conditions of the elections among various factions. Concurrent with the legislative elections, Guaido has promised some sort of referendum as well, though details remain vague and he appears unorganized on that front.

Early January – The current National Assembly term ends, but Guaido will attempt to hang on as the de jure president. This occurs whether or not elections take place in December. As occurred in January 2020, there will likely be dueling institutions competing for legitimacy and arguing over constitutional points of order that mask the power politics of domestic crowds, security forces and international pressure.

Late January – A Biden administration likely takes over in the US. With many competing domestic and international priorities, changes in US policy towards Venezuela will not occur immediately (except TPS for migrants, which has been promised as one of Biden’s first actions). Even though nothing changes on day one, it’s a new international environment that creates uncertainty for both Maduro and his opponents.

February through April – These months are usually more tense than the rest of the year in Venezuela. Historically, the largest protests, coups and coup attempts have occurred in the first four months of the year.

Ideally, during these opening months of 2021, the Biden administration would begin to better align its policies with Latin America and Europe to unify its efforts to pressure a democratic transition. However, given how volatile the political situation will be in Venezuela, it’s just as likely that the US and the rest of the international community find themselves responding to events as they change on the ground.

Coronavirus and shortages add to the tensions

Coronavirus domestically – The spread of Covid-19 is accelerating in Venezuela and the health situation is likely to worsen in the coming months. The regime is covering up the real statistics and likely isn’t able to fully track the situation. Consider how bad the pandemic is in Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina and remember that Venezuela is almost certainly going to be worse than its South American counterparts given its preexisting crisis.

Coronavirus internationally – The global recession that has accompanied the pandemic means lower oil prices and less assistance from Maduro’s remaining allies including Russia and China. On the plus side for Maduro, the pandemic has helped distract the region from the Venezuela crisis.

Fuel and food shortages – The population is suffering and that suffering is growing worse. Nearly everyone blames Maduro for that suffering. Protests of these conditions are occurring at local levels, though they are less political than they were in 2019. The population would support change if given the opportunity.

Maduro’s disputes with former Chavistas – The crackdown on political parties that used to support the Chavistas has created new enemies for the ruling coalition. In some ways, Maduro treats his former allies who aren’t fully in line with him worse than he treats the traditional “opposition.” While this may help his stealing of the legislative elections, it is creating new opponents with some legitimacy among populations that the Guaido coalition often fails to engage.

Above: Capriles announcing that he will participate in December’s legislative elections

Maduro’s opponents are fractured – Machado wants a military intervention, something even US officials called “magical realism” this week. Capriles is negotiating with Maduro and will run in December’s elections, issuing a statement last night that attempted to undermine the legitimacy of Guaido’s presidency. Guaido is planning something for December but has been slow and vague as to revealing what that will be. Guaido, however, has definitely been opposed to both Machado and Capriles. These fractures have worsened in the past month and are not going to be easily healed in the coming months. As the political situation worsens in the December to April timeframe, those divisions will complicate efforts to promote a transition.

Maduro also remains in a position of weakness

Nicolas Maduro’s opposition is a mess. We all know it. Less commented on is the fact that Maduro still feels the need to negotiate and compete with them at all.

If Maduro were in a position of strength, his strategy for the December legislative elections would be simple:

  1. Hold legislative elections in December with only the candidates he allows
  2. Turn out some voters by buying them off, steal the rest of the votes he needs
  3. Declare victory
  4. Install a new assembly
  5. Detain anyone who disagrees with him domestically
  6. Don’t care about what people think internationally

From a real position of strength, Maduro’s plan could also be a lot simpler by just skipping the election farce and detaining Juan Guaido today. Yet, Guaido remains free and has greater freedom of movement around the country than Maduro. While Guaido has been unable to remove Maduro from power, the de facto government’s attempts to defeat Guaido, such as the stunt at the National Assembly this past January, have also failed.

Even if he’s been weakened in recent months, Guaido’s continuing influence demonstrates Venezuelan politics is not a simple dictatorship where Maduro does whatever he wants. It remains a complex soap opera of actors and actions, negotiations and betrayals, corruption and conspiracy. Within that framework, the simple plan to steal the elections I wrote above doesn’t work because Maduro craves a veneer of legitimacy to the legislative elections so that he can reestablish relations with key countries, reduce sanctions and legitimize certain economic deals.

To attempt to gain that legitimacy, Maduro is negotiating both publicly and in private with domestic and international actors. In the past week, he freed dozens of political prisoners who had been unjustly detained and pardoned others. Maduro also offered to have the EU and UN observe (not just accompany) the December elections.

None of Maduro’s recent moves should be taken at face value. The prisoners who were released or pardoned never should have been imprisoned in the first place and have been threatened with recapture if they cross certain red lines. An observation mission rushed during a pandemic is going to be limited. Plus, everyone already knows the conditions for the election are unfair by nearly all standards given the disqualifications of candidates and the takeovers of political parties.

Still, the fact the concessions were made at all demonstrates that Maduro feels pressure and there is room for policy changes within the Maduro regime. For all the reasons I wrote above, Maduro knows that the coming months will be more difficult than the ones that have just passed. Rather than dismissing the concessions because of their flaws, Maduro’s domestic opponents and the international community should recognize them as an opportunity to press for additional concessions that will improve democracy, human rights and the general living situation in the country.

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