Venezuela: how long can Nicolás Maduro last?
It was only a letter. Yet it was central to the heady mix of spy craft and back-channel talks that sparked the opposition’s boldest attempt yet to claim the Venezuelan presidency, in a fast-escalating crisis that could yet suck the US into a bloody civil conflict in South America.
Until this week, General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera was one of socialist leader Nicolás Maduro’s closest confidants. But now, in 664 carefully chosen words, the head of Venezuela’s feared SEBIN secret police described the Maduro regime as corroded by corruption, division and failure — a situation, he suggested, with only one solution: rebellion, including by him.
Gen Figuera was one of several senior officials to hold weeks of secret talks about regime change with the Venezuelan opposition that is led by Juan Guaidó, who is recognised by 54 nations, including the US, as the country’s legitimate president.
Plans were so advanced that the opposition even had a 15-point document that set out transition terms for the regime, which is supported by Russia and Cuba.
Among those points were Mr Maduro’s exit, guarantees for the military, and Mr Guaidó established as interim president. Events quickly accelerated on Tuesday even before Gen Figuera’s letter, which has been verified as genuine by Venezuelan website Efecto Cocuyo, began to circulate on social media. As dawn broke that morning, Mr Guaidó stood outside the Carlota military air base in Caracas and called for the start of “the final phase” of Operation Liberty, the culmination of a four-month push to unseat Mr Maduro that he claimed had significant military backing.
By 8am, thousands of protesters streamed to join Mr Guaidó at the air base, beginning a frantic nationwide day of spontaneous marches and tear gas streaked street battles.
Donald Trump, the US president, who from day one of his administration made Venezuela a foreign policy priority alongside Iran and North Korea, wrote on Twitter from Washington that he was monitoring the situation “very closely”.
“Nerves of steel,” tweeted Mr Maduro to his followers in the morning, before disappearing from public view.
“We’re going to continue on the streets until we achieve the freedom of Venezuela,” Mr Guaidó called out to followers after they had regrouped in Plaza Altamira, an opposition stronghold.
They shouted back: “Yes we can!” Amid the confusion, rumours spread that Mr Maduro was about to board a plane for Havana.
In the end, neither the mass defections nor Mr Maduro’s departure happened. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo put forward the following version of events: “Maduro had a plane waiting to take him away, but the Russians convinced him to stay.”
Gen Vladimir Padrino, the defence minister who according to US officials had been one of those negotiating the transition with the opposition, also suddenly changed tack. Broadcasting his loyalty to Mr Maduro on television, he warned the army would defend Mr Maduro with its blood. Other senior officers followed his lead. Except for a few dozen low-ranking defectors, only Gen Figuera had switched sides.
Late on Tuesday, Mr Maduro reappeared to make a television address from the Miraflores presidential palace, looking nervous but saying his troops had quashed “a coup-like skirmish”.
By then, Leopoldo López, the opposition leader who had seemingly escaped from house arrest and Gen Figuera’s SEBIN agents guarding him, had taken refuge in the Spanish ambassador’s residence. More mass protests led by Mr Guaidó followed on Wednesday, but they were contained by armoured cars manned by the National Guard and armed militias on motorbikes.
By Thursday, the streets of Caracas were mostly quiet after the street battles had left at least four people dead and hundreds injured.
As for Gen Figuera, his whereabouts remained unknown, although he is understood to have fled Venezuela for Puerto Rico.
It is unclear why the opposition’s push this week failed, although senior US officials, including Mr Pompeo and Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy for Venezuela known for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal during the Reagan administration, suggested it was due to Cuban and Russian influence.
“We know that a part, a large part, a majority of the high command were in talks . . . about a change in government, with the departure of Maduro and with guarantees for the military,” Mr Abrams told online Venezuelan TV network VPItv on Wednesday. But then those same people “stopped answering their phones”, he added.
One possibility, reported by the Wall Street Journal, is that Cuban intelligence officers learnt of the talks and told Gen Padrino. Pretending to be part of the conspiracy, he then used the negotiations to flush out the rebels.
Another possibility is that Moscow, which is owed billions of dollars by Caracas, helped thwart the plan — a notion rubbished by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov after a phone call with Mr Pompeo on Wednesday.
“Pompeo phoned, called for us to refuse to support Maduro, called for Cuba and us not to interfere in the internal affairs of Venezuela. The whole story sounds quite surreal,” Mr Lavrov said.
“If you count up all that official representatives of the American administration say about Venezuela, then you can pose questions endlessly and to all these questions the answer will be, to put it diplomatically: it’s untrue.” Mr Pompeo and Mr Lavrov are set to meet in Finland next week to discuss Venezuela. Whatever happened, Mr Maduro remained in control on Friday.
Still, the fact that he had made two broadcasts early on Thursday from military bases, in which he marched in combat gear and lambasted “coup plotters and traitors”, suggests a tenuous grip on power.
“The break has begun, and believe me, the fissure that opened up on April 30 is a fissure that’s going to turn into a crack and that crack is going to end up breaking the dyke,” said Mr López from the Spanish ambassador’s residence, a Caracas court having ordered his rearrest.
The economic crisis makes matters worse.
Two decades of mismanagement, compounded in January by US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, have made it harder for Mr Maduro to pay supporters, and feed the security forces and their families.
Even members of the family of Gen Padrino (whose name translates as Godfather) have seemingly pleaded with him to change sides. “Today we beseech you in the name of hope for Venezuela, for the future of a country that cannot bleed any more, we want to ask that you join the people,” said one relative in a family video uploaded to YouTube who called Gen Padrino “cousin”.
Mr Guaidó, despite perennial fears of his arrest, continues to move about freely and to draw protesters on to the streets.
On Friday, he called for mass mobilisations this weekend at the country’s biggest military bases “in peace . . . and without succumbing to provocations”. “Was Tuesday a success or not?,” Mr Guaidó said in press conference on Friday, addressing frustrations about the failed push. “The real failure is that there is no electricity in Maracaibo and that Maduro continues to usurp. Operation Liberty continues.”
Outside the country, the opposition counts on undimmed support from allies in Europe, most of Latin America and the US — where Mr Trump repeats that “all options remain on the table”, a pledge that may soon be tested. However, reports suggest he is so far resisting calls for a more aggressive approach from John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser.
“We’re doing everything we can do, short of, you know, the ultimate,” Mr Trump told Fox News on Wednesday. “There are people that would like to do — have us do the ultimate. But we . . . have a lot of options open,” he added, apparently hedging his bets.
For now, the situation has reached an impasse. But with UN estimates that 7m Venezuelans are in need of humanitarian aid, it cannot go on forever. “Nobody wants Maduro to stay, but nobody,” says one Venezuelan businessman who is close to the regime. “He has to go. The only questions are: when and how?”
One possible scenario is that Mr Maduro clings on but meets his end in a popular revolt, as more and more Venezuelans join the opposition movement. Another is that he defects for a life of exile in Cuba or Russia, as per this week’s apparent plan.
The opposition would then initiate a transition government and free elections. Investment starts to return to the country as part of a multibillion-dollar rescue package led by the IMF, and Venezuela, which sits on the world’s largest reserves of energy, begins a long, slow return to normality.
A third possibility is that the transition comes from within the regime with one dictator, Mr Maduro, replaced by another. “We’re going to bring down the government. That’s what I really feel. It’s been 20 years of dictatorship so you can’t bring about change that quickly, but I’m optimistic,” says opposition protester Stefanie Sánchez, 27, in Caracas. “They [the government] should negotiate, but they should negotiate their own departure.”
Whatever happens, more talks will have to take place. The alternatives are a deepening stalemate, a growing social toll and the increased likelihood of massive bloodshed.
As the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organisation, said this week, if the choice in Venezuela is between deadlock or talks, “it should not be a difficult choice.”
Additional reporting by Vanessa Silva in Caracas