By Roberto Valladares & Nicola Morfini
Venezuela is currently experiencing one of the greatest economic and humanitarian catastrophes in recent memory. After two decades of inept economic policies, inflation surpassed one million percent at the end of 2018, and more than three million Venezuelans fled the country in an attempt to escape the famine that has condemned one in seven children to malnutrition.
Meanwhile, the homicide rate has exceeded to 80 people for every 100,000, making Venezuela the most violent country in Latin America. Massive blackouts, which have been frequent for years, have now reached unendurable levels. The situation is truly desperate and unfortunately, there are reasons to believe it could get worse.
What began as a domestic crisis has escalated dramatically, fanned by the National Assembly’s appointment of opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president in January of this year, a direct challenge to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido has since been backed by several Western and Latin American countries and international organisations. He is now calling on the general population and the army to join a popular uprising against Chavista leadership.
Meanwhile, the US President Donald Trump has made it clear that he is willing to consider military intervention on Venezuelan soil in order to remove the government from power, while Russia has deployed military personnel in Caracas, doubling down on its support for Maduro.
Any foreign military intervention at this stage is bound to throw the country into complete chaos and condemn it to a fate similar to that of Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in 2001.
Chavismo appears to have lost popular support, with Maduro’s approval ratings hovering at around 20 percent. The end of the oil bonanza undermined the regime’s ability to sustain its redistributive policies, which have supported the majority of the less privileged sectors of the population for years.
Yet, in the face of domestic and international pressure, Chavismo has proved to be surprisingly resilient. This apparent contradiction can be explained by the complex system of vested interests which had emerged over the past two decades in Venezuela.
The late president, Hugo Chavez, and his successor Maduro undermined state institutions, turning them into corrupt fiefdoms where allies of the regime were given office and allowed to enrich themselves by embezzling state funds. The most notorious example is perhaps the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (FANB).
Following a series of expropriations about a decade ago, Chavez gave FANB commanders control over some of the country’s most valuable assets, including several mines. Although many of them are now closed, army officers continue to profit from illegal mining. Members of the military are also said to be involved in drug and fuel trafficking, to which Caracas has turned a blind eye. The military leadership continues to support Maduro because they know that no other government would offer them comparable privileges.
The FANB, however, is not the only armed force that is currently securing the survival of Maduro’s government. In the early days, when elements of the military did not support the regime and tried to organise a coup against Chavez, the Venezuelan president decided to supply weapons to loyal supporters.
This is how the Bolivarian Circles, which later came to be known as “colectivos”, were created. Although the avowed goal of these groups is to defend the socialist revolution, they have evolved into armed criminal gangs. In exchange for political support (including attacks on government critics and protestors), colectivos are allowed to retain control over popular neighbourhoods and engage in illegal business.
These various forces that have accumulated power during the past two decades are poised to lose everything if Chavismo falls. For this reason, they continue to support Maduro and his government, despite their brutal corruption and extreme incompetence and despite Guaido’s calls to back the opposition.
The situation in Venezuela is reminiscent of that of Afghanistan – a fragmented and polarised country where a US-led invasion and subsequent stabilisation attempts have resulted in a succession of failures. Afghanistan must serve as a warning: should the US invade Venezuela, overthrowing Maduro would be the easy part. It would be much more difficult to overcome the violence and disorder that would erupt after he is deposed.
If the Venezuelan opposition or foreign forces undertake forceful regime change, the Venezuelan armed forces, which have close to half a million personnel, and the colectivos could trigger large-scale upheaval, which could escalate into an urban war.
In the event of a conflict, the FANB may split and some factions may side with the opposition. Although the Russian military on the ground would likely avoid participating in the resistance in case of a US military invasion, they could play a decisive role in providing additional weaponry and logistical support to the collectives and new militia forces.
An armed conflict would undermine further the already weak social and political institutions of the country, as well as law enforcement. This would allow criminals of all sorts to gain even more power within the country and the colectivos to solidify control over popular neighbourhoods. Rampant crime and “guerrilla warfare” could become a fixture in Venezuela for the years and even decades to come.
In the face of such possibilities, the international community and the Venezuelan opposition have to recognise the complexity of the situation. If they do not have a calculated and comprehensive strategy for the transition period, violence could reach unprecedented levels.
The opposition cannot continue to ignore the true power dynamics on the ground and hope that a popular uprising with consolidated leadership would be enough to depose an unpopular government.
At this point, the critical question in Venezuela should not be how to overthrow Maduro, but rather how to avoid massive bloodshed and ensure a peaceful transition.