SANTIAGO - Ten days ago, on Feb. 23, our continent and the whole world were watching what would happen at Venezuela's borders with Colombia and Brazil . In an attempted show of force, Venezuela's opposition chief and self-proclaimed head of a provisional government Juan Guaidó , sought to bring humanitarian aid across the border, against the will of President Nicolás Maduro. The intention was to have the Venezuelan Armed Forces defy Maduro's authority and let aid in, effectively taking a first, putative step towards regime change.
That did not happen. Neither soldiers nor the police followed Guaidó"s mandate, recognized as legitimate by more than 50 nations around the world. They remained united and, aside from some scuffles, burned trucks and a few desertions, little happened that day in Venezuela.
Did Maduro become stronger? We do not think so. Venezuela is heaving under a ruinous dictatorship, with an annual rate of hyper-inflation exceeding a million percent and a growth slump that has pummeled GDP for five years and shrunk the economy by more than half. Food and medicines do not meet people's minimum needs. It is unthinkable that the culprit in this disaster could relax and think he has won - even if he was filmed dancing salsa with his wife that day - especially with the subsequent exacerbation of international measures against his regime that will likely continue in coming days and weeks .
Maduro is less in charge of the process than his tragicomical persona may suggest
What this latest episode reveals, in our opinion, is that the Venezuelan regime is much more a military, than a civilian-military dictatorship. Maduro is less in charge of the process than his public, tragicomical persona may suggest. Behind the scenes are figures like Diosdado Cabello, a soldier and president of the trumped-up Constituent Assembly, and Vladimiro López Padrino, another soldier and Minister of Defense. Numerous members of the military have turned Venezuela into a paradise for illegal businesses involving oil, gold and foreign exchange, and as many investigations suggest, drugs as well.
This is not a typical Latin American junta regime, with the army siding with a sector of the population (generally the conservative Right, and sometimes the Left), reaping the rewards, and expanding the terrain for corruption and impunity. We saw that in Central America, Chile, Brazil and Argentina. What we have here are the leaders of a corps profoundly altered and politicized by the late president Hugo Chávez, and since fortified by Cuban security services. Over the years, these have become a professional mafia that has taken over the government apparatus, and turned Venezuela into a failed state.
But this well-greased mafia will not stop a possible, negotiated solution to the country's impasse. Even the biggest capo has to at some point conclude it would be best to negotiate with the authorities. And this regime and its figureheads are not immune to international pressure or the repudiation of millions of Venezuelans, the vast majority of whom very likely back Guaidó. As he has indicated, the armies are probably divided, but the rifts have yet to emerge. Not all officers back Maduro, which may indeed explain why Guaidó can move about the country without being detained, so far at least.
None of this has so far swayed the junta.
Was he weakened by the failure to deliver aid? We think so, but not necessarily irreparably. He may yet win this war. His grave error that day was to declare that all options were open, including implicitly, foreign military intervention. Any such attack would engulf Venezuela in violence and impede the restoration of democracy, but also break the continental unity forged not around U.S. military intervention, but around the democratic cause in Venezuela.
The Lima Group has sensibly ruled out intervention, urging instead the military to recognize Guaidó. With this option out, what must be done to dislodge the regime?
Guaidó and his team have prudently offered officers full amnesty for recognizing his administration. Maduro himself may have been offered a way out and exile in Cuba or Russia, and the opposition have spoken of national reconciliation, not justice. But none of this has so far swayed the "junta" into desisting from its illicit enterprises that continue to sink a country and its economy.
There have been reliable reports of conversations between Guaidó and his people and China and Russia , to assure them that their investments would be protected and their debts, paid, if they drop Maduro. These elements, we think - tighter sanctions and diplomatic pressures, to loosening of Chinese and Russian positions towards the opposition, continued protests and seeking ways to bring in aid - may finally serve to push the doors to Maduro's exit and to free elections.