IntelBrief: Is Venezuela Approaching a Tipping Point?
May 9, 2019

Is Venezuela Approaching a Tipping Point?

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Bottom Line Up Front

• Recent unrest in Venezuela and the continuing uncertainty over whether embattled President Maduro will step down continues to drag on.

• Following a recent coup attempt, some have speculated that Russia involved itself to save the Maduro regime. 

• The deteriorating situation has caused more than 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country; those who remain face increasing poverty, malnutrition, and shortages of medicine.

• Recent reports in the U.S. suggest that the Trump administration is considering all possible options in dealing with Venezuela, to include military action.

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Recent unrest in Venezuela and the continuing uncertainty over whether President Maduro will step down continues to drag on. Opposition leader Juan Guaido and his supporters seemed convinced that the upper echelon of Maduro’s inner circle was set to abandon him and join the administration of a new government, led by Guaido. But Maduro’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López appeared on Venezuelan television to denounce what he labeled a coup by Guaido and shattering his belief that he had more widespread support within the Venezuelan military and defense establishment than was the case. To convince some of Maduro’s closest allies to break ranks, the U.S. lifted sanctions on General Manuel Christopher Figuera, the chief of Venezuela’s intelligence service who recently turned on the country’s embattled leader, accusing him of corruption.

More recently, Guaido has been wooing senior military and government officials with places in a post-Maduro transitional government. In addition to his attempts to entice Maduro loyalists to defect, another element of Guaido’s strategy has been to maintain momentum among his supporters, encouraging Venezuelan civilians to organize nationwide strikes and protests to force the government from power. Some have speculated that the Russians stepped in to salvage the Maduro regime at the eleventh hour, preventing him from heading to the airport where he was allegedly preparing to board a plane to Cuba. Putin has been encouraged by his meddling in Syria, where he has managed to successfully bolster the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In response to the coup attempt, Maduro appeared on camera in his military uniform and spoke to soldiers at a base in the capital, Caracas. ‘Soldiers of the fatherland, it’s time to fight,’ he proclaimed, in a speech that did little to assuage a nervous Venezuelan public, as civilians struggle to deal with widespread violence and instability, especially as the economy continues its downward spiral. The deteriorating situation has caused more than 3 million Venezuelans to flee the country. Those that remain are mired in the misery of a steadily collapsing state, where poverty, malnutrition, and the shortages of medicine are prevalent. Another response by the current regime included the pro-government Supreme Court charging several opposition lawmakers with crimes, to include treason.

Recent reports in the United States suggest that the Trump administration is considering all possible options in dealing with Venezuela, to include military action. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are among the most hawkish White House officials warning of U.S. military action in Venezuela, while President Trump has been far more cautious in advocating the use of force. For his part, Guaido has spoken out against the unilateral use of American military force, though he has not appeared to have wholly jettisoned the idea, at least rhetorically, of U.S. troops working in tandem with Venezuelan forces that seek to overthrow the current regime. 

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