Nicolas Maduro has proven his staying power again and again, mainly because Venezuela’s military has yet to decide that keeping him is costlier and more risky than packing him off into exile.
Nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans now live in poverty. Inflation is projected to hit 10 million percent next year according to the International Monetary Fund; citizens already use literal wheelbarrows of money to purchase staples like bread and milk… when they’re lucky enough to find them on store shelves. Since 2015, more than 3 million people have fled the country. The world has watched with growing dismay as Venezuela – an economy once buoyed by the world’s largest proven oil reserves – has descended from prosperous nation to humanitarian catastrophe in less than a decade.
And yet for the first time since President Nicolas Maduro came to power in 2013, the political situation in Venezuela appears finally to have begun to shift. That alone would be cause for celebration, but we are also witnessing something fortuitous and unexpected. It goes well beyond people lashing out against horrendous living conditions or revolting against a repressive regime. That storyline has played out at many other times and in many other places. What’s exceptional about Venezuela’s current situation is that the country’s opposition is now backed by a genuine alignment of foreign powers on an issue that isn’t a core national interest for any of them.
An opposition movement overwhelmed and fragmented by the country’s many problems and resolute military support for an inept government has rallied around Juan Guaido, a 35-year-old engineer and leader of Venezuela’s parliament. Guaido dared to be the rallying figure for Venezuelans to unite behind. He is bolstered by his position as elected leader of the National Assembly, but also by the courage required to invoke the constitution to proclaim himself “interim president” until free and fair elections can be held. But his bid to revitalize his country’s broken political system is also buttressed by broad and deep support from much of the international community. As of this writing, more than 20 countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, among them the US, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, and all of the country’s Latin American neighbors except Mexico.
There have been other opposition leaders before Guaido, but Maduro has outlasted all of them. Guaido won’t be nearly as easy to push aside now that so many other governments have committed to support him. And in a world where so many countries have increasingly adopted an “every nation for itself” approach to foreign policy, that’s nothing short of astounding.
Even more stunning is that it was a US administration led by Donald Trump that took the lead in pushing an international response to Venezuela’s political impasse. Trump’s surprise decision to take a hard line against the Maduro regime (featuring sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA in addition to handing control of some of Venezuela’s assets in the US directly to Guaido) appears to contradict his “America First” approach to foreign policy. But Trump’s newfound commitment to Venezuela’s democracy is the result of the commitment of US Senator Marco Rubio (a key Republican ally for whom the developments in Venezuela are critical to his electoral base in Florida) and the hardline nature of Trump’s White House staff, including National Security Adviser John Bolton.
It’s not clear that Trump cares about the plight of the average Venezuelan any more than he does the plight of the average Syrian or Rohingya Muslim in Southeast Asia, but he does care about being perceived as powerful and driving geopolitical developments, and his administration’s steps on Venezuela thus far have come with minimal risks to US interests. It certainly helps that Venezuela’s oil is no longer nearly as important to the US energy mix as it once was, giving Washington more room to be aggressive on the diplomatic front. Just as importantly, Maduro isn’t anywhere near as critical to the geopolitical machinations of foreign powers as Bashar Assad in Syria is to countries like Russia and Iran – and his government has earned a reputation as one that fails to pay its foreign debts.
Humanitarian concern alone is never enough to bring foreign intervention, but Venezuela’s crisis and the deep cynicism of Maduro’s government have done just that. There’s no guarantee that true change is imminent. Maduro has proven his staying power again and again, mainly because Venezuela’s military has yet to decide that keeping him is costlier and more risky than packing him off into exile. In addition, when Venezuela does finally get new leadership, the country will face countless problems, chief among them sky-high debt and fallout from a decade-long brain drain. But the alignment of so many foreign governments now offers hope that Venezuela’s people may finally have brighter days ahead.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.”