Venezuela is in turmoil. Both Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó claim to be president – the latter until new elections can be held – and neither has any incentive to back down.
Maduro, who two weeks ago was sworn into his second term following disputed elections last year, has little public support, but he retains the backing of the military.
Guaidó, on the other hand, can mobilize mass displays of popular support, and has the backing of a chorus of western democracies – but little control over the levers of power within Venezuela.
So what are the possible outcomes for this embattled nation and its 32 million citizens – some three million of whom have already fled abroad?
Maduro has twice survived previous challenges to his power. After mass protests in 2014, he targeted opposition leaders, such as Guaidó’s political patron, Leopoldo López, who was arrested and barred from running for office. Five years later he is still under house arrest.
Fresh unrest broke out in 2017 when Maduro sidelined the national assemblyafter it switched hands to the opposition. Demonstrations were met with bloody repression: over 120 protestors killed and hundreds more injured. The crackdown prompted international condemnation but Maduro succeeded in consolidating his power.
That approach seems less workable today. Although Maduro retains the backing of allies such as Russia, Turkey and Cuba, he has come under unprecedented international pressure including from a dozen Latin American countries.
Military top brass has made a show of support for their commander in chief, but there has been a string of defections by junior officers. At the weekend, Maduro’s military attache to the embassy in Washington DC became the most senior figure to switch sides, followed by the consul in Miami.
Rank and file soldiers have felt the economic impact of the country’s crisis, but Maduro has rewarded senior officers with positions in government and the state oil company PDVSA. But US sanctions on the company unveiled this week could change that.
If Maduro is to survive this current challenge, he’ll have to keep the military onside, and that means finding a way to keep them paid.
Another way out of the current standoff – though not one that would benefit the Venezuelan people – would be a military coup that leaves a general or some sympathetic civilian in charge. That would likely mean a return to business as usual: kleptocracy, mismanagement and authoritarianism.
Potential successors in the military would be either Maduro’s lieutenant Diosdado Cabello or defence minister Vladimir Padrino López, both of whom command military support but are widely despised by many Venezuelans. Civilian candidates could be vice president Delcy Rodríguez or her predecessor Tareck El Aissami. Both are international pariahs.
In any case, a change at the top would not placate the opposition, now emboldened and set on restoring democracy. And if political options are closed for good, there is a strong risk that opponents of the regime would turn to the armed struggle – and Latin America has a troubled history vanquishing insurgencies.
Meanwhile, unless a new leader could rebuild the country’s wrecked economy, millions will continue to flee, further destabilizing the region.
A transition back to democracy would be the easiest way out of the current standoff but Maduro has little to gain and everything to lose by surrendering power.
Even if Maduro agrees to leave, he will not want to risk any reckoning over his authoritarian rule – and neither will thousands of public and military officials who enabled him.
Guaidó has promised an amnesty to members of the armed forces who “contribute to the reestablishment of democratic order”.
There are pragmatic reasons for such a move, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based consultant, who offered Colombia’s 2016 peace deal with the leftist Farc rebels as a possibly example.
“You cannot have ten of thousands going into exile or be judged by ordinary courts – it would be chaos,” he said.
Maduro and his inner circle would most likely have to leave the country, but it is unclear where he could go. His only major international allies are Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey, and it is unclear what could motivate any of them to receive him.