Saturday is Venezuela’s next watershed moment.
Juan Guaidó says international humanitarian aid will get into the country by land, air or sea. The Trump administration is stockpiling aid on the Colombian border and lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio are billing February 23 as the day when the Venezuelan military, which is currently under Nicolás Maduro’s control, must decide whether or not to allow aid to flow into the hands of needy Venezuelans. They say any violence on Saturday will disqualify Venezuelan military leaders from relief from U.S. sanctions.
But none of Venezuela’s top military leaders have publicly backed Guaidó’s interim government. Russia and China continue to recognize Maduro. India is buying more Venezuelan oil. Both supporters and critics of the decision to recognize Guaidó are worried about losing momentum for elections if Saturday comes and goes without a change in the status quo, as the full effect of U.S. oil sanctions on Maduro’s inner circle will take months, not weeks.
“Based on the rollout of the sanctions and the supply already loaded on ships and existing contracts, you’re looking at a June-July timeframe,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former State Department official who is now a vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington, D.C. “I think stalemate is a good word. Certainly, Saturday is going to be another inflection point.”
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Diplomats from the region are growing concerned that momentum against Maduro is slowing.
“The thought was that when the United States recognized Guaidó that things would fall apart for Maduro,” said one South American diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the diplomat was not authorized to publicly discuss U.S. policy. “But that hasn’t happened yet.”
The thinking in the region was that the international pressure campaign would spur top leaders of the military to turn against Maduro and back Guaidó. But that hasn’t happened yet.
After the U.S. imposed financial sanctions on PDVSA, the Venezuelan oil company controlled by the government, “we were thinking this was a turning point,” said the diplomat. “But that was weeks ago.”
Last week, Rubio named six Venezuelan generals who could allow aid into the country from Colombia if they assist or allow non-governmental organizations to distribute it or open the border and order their troops to stand down on Saturday. Rubio said any acts of violence on Saturday would disqualify the Venezuelan military leaders responsible from participating in a democratic transition of power, though he noted that Maduro’s opposition was allowed to travel to the Colombian border with minimal opposition from the military on Thursday.
“Just spoke with 2 people on caravan headed to #Venezuela border to coordinate receipt of aid,” Rubio tweeted Thursday. “Report that most members of national guard units that stopped them made only half hearted attempts. When locals came out to protest the units stepped aside & allowed caravan to continue.”
On Thursday Hugo Carvajal, head of Venezuela’s military intelligence service, broke with Maduro in a video posted on social media. He urged Maduro to let aid in. Rubio called Carvajal “among the highest profile pro-regime figures in Venezuela.”
Proponents of ousting Maduro and installing Guaidó as interim president until free and fair elections are scheduled, including President Donald Trump, Colombian President Iván Duque and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, are working under a warp-speed timeframe. They argue that giving Maduro time increases his chances of staying in power, which makes any slowing of momentum a setback.
Guaidó promised aid would be delivered starting Feb. 23. During a Thursday press conference about the steps the opposition was taking to help Venezuelans in the United States, Carlos Vecchio, the Venezuelan opposition’s top diplomat in Washington, would not address questions about what would happen if the Maduro government continued to block the aid over the weekend. But he said he was confident that change was coming soon and that the opposition would take full control of the government.
“This is a complex moment for us,” Vecchio said. “I’m fully confident that we’re in an irreversible process of change in Venezuela. And I don’t have any doubt that in the days to come we will have a resolution in Venezuela and that will facilitate this process.”
Benjamin Gedan, who was responsible for Venezuela policy on the National Security Council during the Obama administration, said the biggest threat to the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy is the Trump administration itself.
“In its impatience to see Maduro hustled out of office, the White House risks fracturing the international coalition and lowering pressure on the Venezuelan dictatorship. Sanctions often fail, and when they succeed, they take time,” he said.
Gedan said the administration would be wise to give the sanctions a chance to work.
“Though it is frustrating to watch Maduro cling to power, given the grave humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration should give sanctions a chance to make an impact.”
Farnsworth said one thing Guaidó could do to keep momentum up while not violating the constitutional argument for his legitimacy is to announce that Venezuela will hold elections 30 days after Maduro leaves the country. Such a move would blunt arguments that Guaidó does not have enough internal support to topple Maduro while also giving Guaidó time to plan for reforming Maduro-controlled institutions like the Supreme Court once he leaves.
“You admit that under current conditions you can’t have elections that are free and fair,” Farnsworth said. “Once that happens, it changes the scenario and you move forward under the Venezuelan constitution. Then, people can say, ‘Get out of here and then we can have elections.’ ”
Daniel Erikson, a former White House and State Department advisor on Latin America during the Obama administration, said Guaidó and his supporters have two enemies: Maduro and inertia. If nothing changes in the short-term on Saturday, the prospects for a democratic transition of power become tougher.
“In addition to struggling against Maduro, it’s struggling against inertia and losing some of the interest of the international community and domestically,” Erikson said. “It’s important to have ongoing efforts to achieve tangible results. That’s why the results of this Saturday have become so important in the ongoing political struggle.”
Erikson said Maduro has some options to mitigate the effects of U.S. oil sanctions, namely through finding alternative buyers on the world market like India. But the market is limited to countries that have the capacity to refine Venezuela’s heavy crude, and other countries could follow the United States’ lead and impose oil sanctions of their own.
And while Rubio and others are focused on the choice that Venezuelan generals make on Saturday and whether the rank-and-file soldiers and officers also block aid, Juan Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center and a former National Security Council official during the Obama administration, said the actions of militias loyal to Maduro are the big wild card on Saturday.
“You have the colectivos and the Bolivarian militia, which some people estimate is 1.7 million civilians,” Gonzalez said. “Those groups are not trained ... and all it takes is one person to fire a shot.”
Gonzalez said that more countries that have recognized Guaidó should follow the Trump administration’s oil sanctions to keep up pressure on Maduro, even if humanitarian aid does not enter the country on Saturday.
But the payoff of sanctions isn’t something that’s likely to result in Maduro’s ouster in weeks. Instead, the opposition must keep making new announcements that continue to generate international attention even if free and fair elections are not on the immediate horizon. “The Guaidó government would obviously love to hit a number of home runs, but in the absence of that if it can bat some singles and doubles, that’s a good fallback position,” Erikson said.