As long as Cuba and Russia are ready and willing to prop up Maduro, there may be no clean way out of the mess in Venezuela.
On April 30, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for the people and military of Venezuela to rise up and oust embattled President Nicolás Maduro. This action came after months of pressure from international leaders — especially US President Donald Trump — for Maduro to yield power to the opposition. This pressure came in the form of sanctions on oil exports and threats of military intervention. By the time Guaidó had called for the uprising, over 50 other countries had recognized that Maduro was no longer the rightful leader of the country.
Yet the uprising has failed to dislodge Maduro from power; the sanctions and threats have failed to disrupt his power base. All of these efforts have failed — and will continue to fail — to produce regime change because they have not deterred two influential actors dead-set on Maduro’s survival: Russia and Cuba.
Moscow has no interest in seeing a change of power in Venezuela. The South American county has been a close partner for Russia since the Hugo Chávez era — Venezuela receives substantial financial assistance from Russia, conducts joint military exercises with the Russians and has been a major importer of Russian arms.
For Moscow, Venezuela presents a rare opportunity to project power abroad, particularly in what is considered the backyard of the United States. Russia has begun efforts to permanently solidify its gains in the Americas by establishing an outpost to host strategic bomber aircraft in Venezuelan territory — a development that could dramatically change the security situation in South America and the Caribbean. If Maduro’s regime were to collapse, the gains Moscow has experienced in the last decade would likely collapse alongside it.
Russia has refused to recognize Guaidó and has denounced American efforts to remove Maduro. More recently, Russia deployed 100 military personnel outside of Caracas, ostensibly to maintain the continuity of the military cooperation between the two states, but skeptics have suggested the Russian military is there to help deter a military intervention and to prop up the government.
But even Russia would be hard-pressed to prevent Maduro’s fall if Venezuela’s military were to turn on the president. Both Trump and Guaidó made overtures to Venezuela’s military prior to the uprising in the hope to effect a relatively peaceful regime change. Guaidó’s offers of amnesty for military officers could go a long way toward making them less fearful of a post-Maduro Venezuela.
But amnesty fails to address the key reason Maduro maintains the backing of the military: the tireless efforts of Cuba. Havana is deeply invested in keeping Venezuela in its orbit — Cuba has received a critical supply of oil from Venezuela since the early 2000s. Without this oil, Cuba risks seeing its own unsteady economy collapse, and some analysts estimate that Cuba would run out of oil in less than two months if Venezuela stopped imports.
To ensure that the status quo holds in Caracas, Cuba has engaged in a decades-long effort of penetrating the Venezuelan government, dating back to the Chávez era when Cuban advisers entered key agencies to influence critical decisions. Cuban officers restructured the Venezuelan military, promoting and rewarding those closely allied to Cuban interests while others were either imprisoned, exiled or executed.
Even the security services surrounding Maduro these days is reported to consist entirely of Cuban bodyguards loyal to Havana. Those few remaining officers who would consider defecting from their posts or organizing a coup would be attempting to organize in the face of extortion and threats to their personal safety and the safety of their families. No offers of amnesty — endorsed by either Guaidó or Trump — can protect defectors from these threats.
A Way Forward
So, what options are left for those seeking to effect a peaceful regime change in Venezuela? While efforts should continue to convince the military to support the Venezuelan people, policymakers must consider if Russia and Cuba can be persuaded to stop propping up Maduro. Unfortunately, there are few remaining tools that can be used against Russia and Cuba to force compliance. Both countries have already endured harsh sanctions from the international community for their foreign policy, leaving few meaningful coercive options left in the policy toolbox.
Instead, Trump and Guaidó may need to consider offering assurances to these foreign powers that their interests in Venezuela will not be compromised by a change in regime. Promises to allow Russia to continue its joint exercises or even move forward with establishing its bomber base may satisfy Moscow, while guarantees by the Venezuelan opposition to honor existing oil commitments to Cuba may convince Havana that Maduro is not integral to their strategy for Venezuela.
However, the political costs of appeasing Cuba and Russia may be a bridge too far for Guaidó, who has explicitly vowed to end Cuban influence in Caracas. While there are some signs that support for Venezuela is in Moscow is starting to erode, both countries still seem committed to the incumbent regime.
And as long as Havana and Moscow are ready and willing to prop up Maduro, there may be no clean way out of the mess in Venezuela for Trump, Guaidó and the Venezuelan people — as the failure of the April 30 uprising demonstrates.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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