Countries that rallied to Venezuela’s Acting President Juan Guaidó now face the question: To what extent, and for how long, will they assist to achieve the restoration of democracy and human rights in Venezuela? Many global leaders believed regime collapse to be imminent twice in the past two months — when Guaidó assumed the presidency on an acting basis, and when he attempted to bring humanitarian aid across the Colombian border. Today, people generally still think the collapse of Maduro’s regime is imminent, through economic pressure and coercion and enticement of officials. This view, nor the threat of U.S. military action, does not lead the opposition and their allies to take crucial steps, should it be wrong.
The most likely scenario in Venezuela is a confusing period of prolonged chaos, characterized by humanitarian suffering, an escalating tempo of regime tactics to stave off collapse and, ultimately, territorial atomization.
It’s critical to understand the nature of the conflict and the adversary’s interests, stakes, capabilities and character. Nicolás Maduro is of a growing body of global actors who have wed centralized state tyranny to criminality, and he has positioned Venezuela as a hub for their activity. These actors are well-resourced financially and in asymmetric military capabilities. State and non-state actors for years have viewed Venezuelan regime preservation as of greater importance to them than Western countries have a successful transition. Some of their objectives do not require Venezuela to be economically productive nor its citizens capable of survival.
Collapse of Venezuelan oil production will result in greater Russian leverage over energy markets, and humanitarian suffering that generates another 3 million to 5 million refugees, will be a burden borne by the United States and its regional allies. Regime consolidation over ashes still can be useful for illicit businesses and regionally subversive operations.
President Guaidó’s international allies frame the crisis through humanitarianism and defense of civil liberties and, to a lesser extent, the Monroe Doctrine (with respect to Russian and Chinese support of Maduro) or Cold War language around a struggle against socialism. The latter view increasingly polarizes conversation about the crisis in the United States. We live, however, in a time of confusion as to Western nations’ role in the world, in part because our adversaries have hijacked two concepts underpinning our civilization and upon which depends our moral justification for global presence — the rule of law and the equality of all humans.
Their approach to propaganda seizes upon Western societal fault lines to convince people that we do not care about the values we profess. This hijacking constrains the efficacy of how we’ve framed this and other crises to convince people that it is right for us to do what ought to be done.
Unless Russia and China withdraw support for Maduro, we need to recognize the Venezuelan crisis for what it is — a proxy conflict of a second cold war, not between capitalism and communism but freedom and tyranny. Heightening the stakes for the West in Venezuela is that, although geopolitics sometimes requires compromising convictions, our desired outcome for Venezuela can be pure and obtainable.
Until recently, Venezuela has been a democracy with huge economic potential and a generally resilient and peaceful populace. It’s clear today that they have been vampirized by tyrannical criminals. Supporting the Venezuelan opposition is a reaffirmation before the world that we see clearly the great struggle of our era — between we who would live under the law, not wield it; empower people with opportunity, not centralize power so as to control; and protect the dignity of individuals, families, and communities, not betray them for personal and state gain. Failure to do so will demonstrate that even as we enter an era of geopolitical tension and transition, we lack the resolve to stand by those who wish to be part of a free, just world.
Any transition attempt must be led and manned as much as possible by Venezuelans. The opposition is organizing over 1 million civilian volunteers and transition plans. They need to develop capabilities relevant to splintering the regime and sustaining themselves in a prolonged, contested context. To this end, they require immediate access to $50 million in working capital for initiatives in coordination with allies, including:
- A multilateral entity, legally empowered and adequately resourced, to pursue the recovery of ill-gotten assets that regime-aligned individuals’ families use to live luxuriously overseas. It should be capable of making deals with officials who assist transition, while making clear that if transition fails, asset recovery efforts will continue.
- Informatic warfare monitoring and response operations, focused on countering Russian and Cuban propaganda designed to splinter allied and Venezuelan resolve.
- Transitioning Venezuelan armed forces to serve under the future government, including training, supplies and logistical support to make forces operationally available in the event of contested transition, and to make clear to those considering defecting that their continued service is valued.
- Developing new government IT platforms. Physical presence and kinetic power no longer are the sole determinants of a state’s legitimacy nor requirements to serve citizens. Infrastructure programmed to enable government that is secure, transparent and respectful of citizens’ rights will support future investment, reconstruction and reestablishment of citizen services.
- Hiring other professional services useful for realizing transition.
Finally, should China call for new elections in Venezuela, it would send a signal regarding whether they intend to internationalize their domestic structure and affiliate globally with centralized criminality. Those supporting Maduro’s regime have thwarted the West in other cases, while the West has disappointed groups we had convinced of our support. The Venezuelan opposition must achieve control over transition operations to mitigate such a risk to themselves. European initiative on these recommendations would send a strong signal that we stand committed unwaveringly.
Michael B. Schoenleber has worked with Venezuelan civic and humanitarian organizations for more than a decade.
Juan C. Lechín is an expert in current Latin American populism. He has worked in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and Venezuela as a political analyst and consultant.