Standoff drags on in Venezuela as Maduro clings onto power

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó visits Brazil but there is little appetite for military action

Juan Guaidó and his wife Fabiana Rosales arrive at the EU delegation office in Brasília on Thursday. Photograph: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg

Juan Guaidó and his wife Fabiana Rosales arrive at the EU delegation office in Brasília on Thursday. Photograph: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg

 

When Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó arrived on Thursday in Brazil for talks with president Jair Bolsonaro, he came as a visiting head of state but one still in search of actual power.

Though now recognised as Venezuela’s president by Brazil and more than 50 other countries, Guaidó and his allies in the Trump administration have spent the week dealing with the fallout from having their bluff called by the man he would replace, Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro showed on Saturday that despite threats of possible US military intervention, he retains the loyalty of Venezuela’s military after troops carried out his order to block Guaidó’s efforts to run humanitarian aid in from Colombia, Brazil and the Caribbean.

In doing so they prevented desperately needed supplies of food and medicines from entering the crisis-stricken country, but faced down an operation clearly designed to get the high command to turn on Maduro’s floundering administration. They also sucked some of the momentum out of Guaidó’s efforts to force chavismo from power.

“The military did call the Trump administration’s bluff but I don’t think that leaves it without options,” says Geoff Ramsey, assistant director of the Venezuela programme at the Washington Office on Latin America think-tank. “We need to start thinking about carrots rather than sticks. The military’s loyalty to Maduro is not inflexible. We haven’t seen the same public statements of support for him that we saw in late January, and I think we can interpret their silence as them waiting for a better offer.”

Threats

Rather than offer incentives in the immediate aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, Guaidó and Venezuela hawks in the Trump administration renewed their threats of military action against Caracas; such an option could again come to the fore should the chavista regime move to detain Guaidó, as authorities in Caracas have threatened.

But other governments have made clear there is little appetite in the wider region for such a course of action. Guaidó’s hosts in Brasília have already stated they will not allow their territory to be used for such an operation. Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão described Maduro’s regime as “criminal” but added “for us, the military option was never an option”.

The transition to democracy should be led by Venezuelans themselves . . . without the use of force

He was speaking at a meeting of the ad hoc Lima Group of western hemisphere states formed to seek a solution to the Venezuelan crisis.

The group also made clear in its statement after Monday’s meeting in Bogotá that it did not believe force was an option, saying “the transition to democracy should be led by Venezuelans themselves . . . without the use of force.”

At the meeting US vice-president Mike Pence – while announcing new measures against four chavista governors who participated in blocking the aid’s entry – urged the Lima Group, of which the US is not a member, to impose tighter sanctions on Maduro’s regime. The US was also due to table a resolution at the UN Security Council on Thursday demanding new presidential elections and the entry of aid. Russia, a key diplomatic ally of Maduro, announced it would veto it.

Amnesty

But little progress has been made on other options suggested for breaking the deadlock. These include firming up the opposition’s proposed amnesty for the military or even suggestions of a power-sharing arrangement between Guaidó and the generals. Such proposals would be hard for many opposition supporters to accept, but similar incentives have paved the way for democratic transitions in the region in the past.

Meanwhile, the international contact group on Venezuela, which is co-chaired by Uruguay and the EU, has concluded a technical visit to Caracas as part of its mission to map out a path acceptable to both sides towards new presidential elections. The group issued no statement on its visit but reportedly found both sides unwilling to negotiate with each other.

Maduro has to leave office for there to be a solution. But the solution cannot be ‘Maduro quits or Maduro quits’

Maduro knows agreeing terms that meet the opposition and contact group’s definition of free and fair elections puts an end date on his hold on power; he appears instead to be playing for time, even taking a leaf out of Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic playbook and offering direct talks with Donald Trump.

But, given his bad faith in previous negotiations, analysts doubt there is a solution to the crisis that leaves him in power.

“Maduro has to leave office for there to be a solution,” says Giovanni Molano, a professor at the international relations institute of the National University of Colombia. “But the solution cannot be ‘Maduro quits or Maduro quits’. This will not happen. There has to be a deal with the military.”

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