Venezuela’s fate hinges on Maduro’s exit: Juan Pablo Spinetto

In recent weeks, hopes for regime change in Venezuela have surged with the candidacy of Edmundo González Urrutia unifying the opposition and leading in polls ahead of the July 28 elections. However, the key obstacle remains: Nicolás Maduro’s incentive to relinquish power is minimal without guaranteed security, freedom, and wealth post-presidency. To ensure a political transition, the international community must offer a compelling exit strategy for Maduro, reducing the risks associated with his departure. Without this, Maduro is likely to cling to power, using all means necessary to maintain his position, including potential electoral manipulation and heightened repression.

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By Juan Pablo Spinetto

Hopes for regime change in Venezuela have surged in recent weeks, the result of a coalescing political opposition and apparent divisions within President Nicolás Maduro’s ruling socialist party ahead of July 28 elections. 

While there are reasons to be more optimistic, and change requires doing exactly what the opposition is doing, there is no point in getting too upbeat until we have a clearer solution to this story’s biggest conundrum: what to do with Maduro and his allies to guarantee a political transition. Let me explain.

The candidacy of Edmundo González Urrutia has unified the opposition behind a respectable, consensus-building figure. Maduro’s government has so far accepted his nomination after blocking previous attempts to pick a presidential contender, most notably María Corina Machado, the wildly popular winner of the October opposition primary. Polls indicate that González Urrutia, a soft-spoken career diplomat, is ahead in voters’ preferences and in position to beat Maduro in the election.

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If that’s the case, the optimistic argument goes, a huge turnout in his favor and Venezuelans’ irresistible desire for change will be enough to overcome attempts by the Maduro government to rig the vote as it did in 2018. The eventual presence of election observers and pressure from key international countries, particularly neighbors Brazil and Colombia, could make the process more transparent; overwhelmed by bigger-than-expected popular fervor, the regime will have no choice but to sit down with the opposition and agree to a transition.

Investors are also sniffing the winds of change. In late April, Venezuela’s defaulted bonds touched the highest levels in three months amid signs the government might become more open to restructuring $154 billion in unpaid securities.

These are indeed all encouraging signals in a country that has long suffered under an authoritarian government. The bravery and determination of opposition leaders, fighting political repression, censorship and imprisonment, deserve admiration. Staying optimistic is necessary to mobilize supporters and make sure they remain energized for the political battle of their lives. But unfortunately, the incentives that Maduro needs to relinquish power voluntarily aren’t there just yet. For that to happen, the costs associated with his exit should be drastically reduced while the burden of resisting in power should become untenable for him.

For a start, where would Maduro go if he loses the presidency? He needs to guarantee his personal security and that of his family and associates; also, his wealth and freedom for the rest of his life — and he’s just 61. Currently no option seemingly offers more safety than being heavily guarded by loyal military forces at the Palacio de Miraflores. He’s too important and symbolic to be allowed to mind his business and enjoy the good life in Rome, Madrid or Miami, as other lesser-known Chavista figures have. How about asylum in Havana? He would be the first target if regime change finally comes to the communist island – and whom to trust in Latin America, where sharp ideological U-turns can happen with every election. Moscow? Please, Maduro’s not Snowden. One of the autocratic Eastern nations he befriended in past years would be a better alternative. 

For someone who has survived an economic collapse, tight sanctions and a pandemic, and still ruthlessly outsmarted rivals from Juan Guaidó to Donald Trump, the most rational option remains sticking to power no matter what. I was never in the business of being a brutal dictator, but if I were in Maduro’s shoes, I wouldn’t risk it. He’d be better off annulling the opposition’s candidacy, blatantly faking results despite the expected international outcry, or even using the prospect of an armed conflict over the disputed Essequibo region bordering Guyana as an excuse to postpone the vote.

In that sense, the Barbados/Doha agreements, while extracting significant concessions and likely ensuring that the opposition could field a candidate, aren’t effective enough; both sides are still accusing each other of not fulfilling their respective commitments. The White House, which has its own domestic political needs, should consider whether the sanctions it has reimposed are giving Chavismo another excuse to move ahead with an even more tainted electoral process.

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Of course, returning to the pre-Barbados status quo is a worrying prospect for the regime. But a bet that its weaknesses and divisions will finally be exposed in a low-standards election won’t produce different results: As bad as it has been for the country, Chavismo exists, it continues to represent a hegemonic political project for Venezuela after 25 years and because it controls most of the country’s institutions, it won’t disappear just like that. In fact, Maduro’s strategy seems to be to press ahead with mobilizing voters, approving minimum wage increases and other benefits at the cost of boosting the tax burden for the few companies investing in Venezuela.

“Chavismo is working to win this election and they have a full electoral machinery in place,” journalist and political analyst Eugenio Martínez told me from Caracas, warning about “excessive” confidence in the opposition’s strength. “How the process goes would decide if we move to a political negotiation after the vote or we go back to a period of much bigger isolation.”

As complex as Venezuela’s case is, argues Barclays Plc. economist Alejandro Arreaza in a recent research note, it isn’t so far removed from other historic cases that ended in transition. Other commentators have mentioned the recent example of Guatemala, where the ruling elite underestimated the ascendance of Bernardo Arévalo until it was too late to stop him. It’s a very good point: History is studded with unthinkable events happening overnight.

The problem is that Maduro reaches similar conclusions from reading about these cases. What’s more, the geopolitical factors in this conflict also loom large: Maduro leaving power would be a defeat for China, Russia and, principally, Cuba, which has been heavily involved in the regime since the years of Hugo Chávez. They won’t accept that so easily. And even if the US lifts its bounty on Maduro and a general amnesty is agreed for everyone during the six-month transition period after the election, the International Criminal Court is investigating his government for crimes against humanity. Who can guarantee that he won’t eventually end up in The Hague?

Don’t get me wrong, what happens on July 28 is really important. It will reveal the regime’s real intentions. I truly hope events prove me wrong and that we finally see a political transition in Venezuela. I’d be the first one to cheer being off the mark and beg forgiveness from all of you. But until there is more clarity on Maduro’s exit strategy, I just don’t see him going anywhere.

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