Why Maduro may prove the underdog in case of a civil war

January 29, 2019 18:34
Self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó, accompanied by his wife Fabiana Rosales and other supporters, speaks to the media in Caracas, Venezuela on Sunday. Photo: Reuters

Venezuela’s political crisis has escalated dangerously as Juan Guaidó, leader of the country’s National Assembly, unilaterally declared himself the interim president with the backing of the nation’s opposition.

The opposition has questioned the legitimacy of the incumbent president, Nicolás Maduro, who has already remained in power for five years, as they alleged electoral fraud and demanded a new election.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump, along with most of the other state leaders on the American continent, have thrown their support for Guaidó and recognized him as interim president.

Trump is even reportedly considering a “military option” in case the political crisis in Venezuela continues to deteriorate, triggering speculation that Washington may intervene and use force in the coming days.

As we all know, when two leaders emerge simultaneously in a sovereign state, the possibility arises that the country could descend into a civil war.

The top generals of the Venezuelan military have pledged their allegiance to Maduro, but the military attaché of the Venezuelan embassy in the United States, Jose Luis Silva, has recently defected and publicly aligned himself with Guaidó. He also demanded a free and fair election.

Silva's defection may imply that the Venezuelan military itself could be on the verge of a split. 

Even though Maduro might appear to hold all the cards for now, it doesn’t necessarily mean he could crush the rebellion with ease if a civil war does break out in his country.

Judging from all the existing factors, we believe Guaidó and the opposition would have the upper hand.

Maduro and his regime have a fatal weakness, which is their inability to lift the country out of its rapidly deteriorating economic nightmare. And this lethal weakness could turn out to be Maduro’s undoing.

In particular, Venezuela’s skyrocketing hyperinflation, which, according to the projection of the International Monetary Fund, is likely to hit 10 million percent this year, has already led to a highly devastating humanitarian crisis within the country.

As a result of the ravages of this economic catastrophe, an estimated 80 percent of Venezuelans are struggling to find enough food on a daily basis.

Worse still, as many as three million hungry and desperate Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries such as Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Ecuador to seek refuge, with some of them setting their sights on the United States as their final destination.

The refugee crisis caused by Venezuela’s economic disaster has not only taken an enormous toll on the country itself, but has also created woes for basically the entire South America, which explains why Maduro is unpopular in neighboring countries.

Moreover, while the average Venezuelans are struggling to survive, the soldiers have also taken the brunt of the country’s hyperinflation and severe shortages of basic goods.

Many of them have remained unpaid and without food for a long time, and are already at the end of their rope.

That said, the mounting grievances and plunging morale among Venezuelan soldiers automatically calls into serious question Maduro’s ability to command their loyalty and deploy them to suppress the opposition in case of a civil war.

So far only a few countries – China, Russia, Turkey, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua and Bolivia – have expressed their support for the Maduro regime.

On the surface, that might sound reassuring enough as far as Maduro is concerned. However, the lip service paid by his international “allies” would be of little help in case a civil war does break out, especially when the US decides to intervene militarily.

As the Chinese saying goes, “distant water cannot put out a fire nearby”. China and Russia are highly unlikely to send troops to Venezuela halfway across the world to fight alongside the Maduro regime against the rebellion.

As both Beijing and Moscow are currently busy with their own disputes with Washington, including the US-Chinese trade war, it is simply just not worth it for Russia and China to further complicate the situation by going head-to-head with the US over Venezuela.

That said, we believe the most Beijing or Moscow is likely to do is to use their veto power in the United Nations to help Maduro somewhat.

And unless Maduro can come up with a more ingenious approach to defusing the crisis in his country, the opposition led by Guaidó is going to have an advantage over him in case of a civil war.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 28

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal