Xi Jinping Says He Is Preparing China for War
The World Should Take Him Seriously
Four years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confidently proclaimed that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s “days are numbered.” Indeed, when his predecessor, the strongman Hugo Chávez, died in 2013, many in the United States and among the Venezuelan opposition believed that Maduro’s presidency would be short-lived. After all, Chávez was a charismatic leader who had concentrated nearly all power since his ascent in 1999, exercised personal control over the country’s institutions, and oversaw the distribution of vast resources acquired through an oil boom. Maduro, in contrast, commanded less public loyalty, had limited oratorical skills, and had inherited a crumbling economy. Viewed by many as a weak substitute for Chávez without any of his mentor’s political talents, Maduro was often derided as “the bus driver,” a reference to his years spent driving a coach in Caracas.
In 2005, I met Maduro, who was then president of Venezuela’s National Assembly and considered a moderate among Chavistas. His mere willingness to even talk to a harsh critic of Chávez suggested some openness. Though a true believer in the revolution, he also struck me as pragmatic; we discussed ways of possibly reducing tensions between Caracas and Washington. But as president, Maduro has proven ruthless in the defense of his regime. He is now recognized as a cruel dictator, employing tactics such as the jailing and killing of his political opponents, which has led to credible accusations of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court. Today, there is little hope that Maduro will relinquish power or lead the country down a more democratic path.
Yet Maduro has not only managed to survive for a decade; he has also entrenched an authoritarian regime. Over the past few years, as economic conditions have marginally improved for some Venezuelans, he has further consolidated his repressive rule and today is comfortably ensconced at home and increasingly accepted abroad. He clearly intends to stay in power for a long time to come.
In their early assessments of Chávez’s chosen heir, many observers misunderstood how power is exercised in Venezuela in the wake of Chávez’s 13-year rule. Maduro has defied all expectations, demonstrating a shrewd pragmatism and Machiavellian political instincts. He has held together the competing factions of the governing coalition and calculated whom to trust and whom to defenestrate. (Maduro recently launched an anticorruption campaign that has allowed him to purge potential adversaries, such as the influential oil minister Tareck El Aissami.) At the same time, he has nimbly manipulated a heterogenous and disorganized opposition. Simply put, Maduro was underestimated, and he has never been stronger.
With Maduro likely to remain at the country’s helm for the foreseeable future, it is time for Washington to revise its approach to Venezuela. Rather than advancing a policy that looks to replace him, the United States should focus on reestablishing a diplomatic presence on the ground, connecting and working with grassroots social and political organizations, and encouraging the opposition to cultivate relations with the country’s diverse sectors. Without such minimal engagement, it is hard to see how Washington can be helpful in rehabilitating a country whose society and political system have been so severely damaged.
When Maduro assumed office, his political survival seemed unlikely. Chávez had left behind an economy in near ruins—a state of affairs that has only worsened under Maduro. Years of mismanagement, politicization, and corruption in the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela—and, more recently, the imposition of U.S. sanctions—led oil production to plummet from nearly 2.5 million oil barrels per day in 2013 to less than 500,000 barrels per day in 2020 , the lowest level in decades . As a result, Venezuela, which is heavily dependent on oil rents, has experienced an economic collapse, with GDP contracting by as much as 80 percent under Maduro. But Venezuela continues to hold the world’s largest oil reserves—a key strategic asset that helps account for the regime’s durability.
Venezuela’s economic calamity, which has only been exacerbated by sanctions, has fueled a grave humanitarian crisis, with an impoverished majority of the population lacking access to basic goods, food, and medical supplies. Many have chosen to leave: since 2015, Maduro has presided over one of the world’s worst refugee crises today, second only to that of Ukraine. Over seven million Venezuelans—almost a quarter of the population—have fled the country since 2015, mostly to neighboring South American countries and, more recently, to the United States. In some ways, the refugee crisis has served as a sort of political pressure valve that funnels many of Maduro’s potential opponents out of the country, leaving those who remain struggling to cope with dire conditions and with little time for politics.
Maduro was underestimated, and he has never been stronger.
Maduro has been able to weather these storms in part because of the autocratic political system he inherited. Chávez worked to erode the autonomy of Venezuela’s judiciary and essentially took over the country’s Supreme Court in 2004. He also deepened his relationship with the military in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2002, when loyal members of the armed forces helped restore him to power after a short-lived removal from office. Thereafter, he worked to turn the military into a key pillar of the regime, buying its support with equipment, political appointments, and business influence. Maduro has deepened these ties with the armed forces, allowing the military to accrue unprecedented authority and resources in exchange for unwavering political support.
Maduro relies heavily on the rents generated by corruption and organized crime, which are now central to the functioning of his regime. Under his rule, smuggling, drug trafficking, and illegal mining have flourished, with the complicity or the direct involvement of the government and the security forces. Prosecutors in the United States have charged Maduro and several of his family members and associates with involvement in lucrative drug trafficking schemes. Maduro has also reinforced Chávez’s practice of harboring insurgent groups from neighboring Colombia, notably the increasingly powerful National Liberation Army (ELN). By doing so, Maduro has been able to tighten his control over the border and extract a profit from such groups’ criminal activities in exchange for protection on Venezuelan soil. Maduro’s dependence on extensive illicit activities poses risks, including rampant violence and the loss of state control over sections of the Colombian-Venezuelan border. But thus far, the gamble has paid off, with criminal enterprises providing the regime with substantial financial support.
Maduro has also managed to maintain and benefit from the ties Chávez forged with foreign powers, which have bolstered the regime even as the country’s economy has crumbled. Since 2005, Chinese development banks have disbursed more than $62 billion in loans to Venezuela, mostly to sustain its decaying oil sector. Although Chinese financing has dropped off in recent years—in part because of Beijing’s changing economic strategy but also out of concern that Caracas will be unable to repay its debts—China continues to provide political and diplomatic support to the regime. Russia has sought to project its geopolitical influence and bolster its relationship with Venezuela through arms deals and cooperation on oil sales. Maduro has expanded energy cooperation with Iran, which has become increasingly important to Caracas since the imposition of U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuela in 2017. And Cuba, a longtime ally of Venezuela, has reaffirmed its commitment to Caracas by providing Maduro with vital counterintelligence, surveillance, and security assistance.
Two other factors also help explain Maduro’s political longevity. First is the lack of a coordinated political opposition. Maduro’s opponents have demonstrated admirable courage but a limited capacity to unite and develop an effective strategy. To be sure, the regime has quashed dissent, banned most opposition parties, incarcerated opponents, and used violence to instill fear in its critics. But the Venezuelan opposition has been beset by problems, such as short-term thinking, personal rivalries, internecine conflicts, and the exile of many of its members, which have thwarted its challenges to Maduro’s rule.
The closest the opposition came to mounting a real challenge to the regime was in 2019, when Juan Guaidó, the leader of the Popular Will party, was proclaimed interim president by the National Assembly, which was the only remaining legitimate institution and was controlled by the opposition. Guaidó offered fresh leadership that appealed to a population desperate for change; his approval rating quickly exceeded 60 percent in public opinion polls. To many, he seemed a worthy vessel for the nation’s hopes.
Much of the international community, eager to oust Maduro, jumped at the chance of political change, with nearly 60 governments recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Nonetheless, a years-long effort on the part of the opposition has proved fruitless. Maduro retained power over the national bureaucracy and all of Venezuelan territory. Domestic and international support for Guaidó began to wane. A shift within the military leadership toward Guaidó—much anticipated by the opposition and by some in Washington—never materialized, the regime regained control of the streets with the help of armed gangs, and the opposition came to seem increasingly quixotic.
U.S. policy under President Donald Trump’s administration also helped strengthen Maduro. Trump pursued a “maximum pressure” strategy involving punishing sanctions and diplomatic isolation coupled with aggressive (albeit hollow) rhetoric, including assertions that “all options are on the table . ” Trump’s tough talk proved counterproductive. Washington’s threats did nothing to change the country’s political circumstances; the Venezuelan military’s support for Maduro held firm. Moreover, Guaidó and the opposition’s embrace of Trump and support for harsh U.S. sanctions, which produced greater economic hardship, eroded their reputations among a public already facing a dire humanitarian situation. Guaidó was unable to create a credible path to ousting Maduro. By September 2022, Maduro ’s popularity had outstripped Guaidó ’s, and in January, the interim presidency was dissolved by the National Assembly. Although Guaidó’s removal amounted to an acknowledgment of the need for a reset, it also exposed the opposition’s own shortcomings—and inadvertently provided Maduro with an opportunity to regain international recognition.
Today, the regime may have reached an inflection point. Maduro has been taking steps to alleviate the country’s dire economic straits, such as partially dollarizing the economy in 2022, which helped to tamp down hyperinflation (although some economists estimate that it remains at around 300 percent year-on-year). But the outlook nonetheless remains bleak, as Venezuela continues to look down the twin barrels of an economic and a humanitarian crisis.
Still, with Trump out of office, the Maduro regime has a chance to relax the punitive sanctions imposed by the United States—a process that will likely involve some concessions, such as freeing political prisoners or allowing independent oversight of elections. In 2022, the Biden administration began to open channels of communication with Maduro, marking a clear shift in U.S. policy. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused a surge in oil prices and spurred U.S. efforts to seek rapprochements with major oil producers—even hostile ones—to ensure ample energy supplies. Washington has hinted at the possibility of r eengaging Venezuela in the global oil markets ; in November, the U.S. government granted Chevron a six-month license to explore and trade oil in the country and issued a two-year license allowing Trinidad and Tobago to develop an offshore gas field in Venezuela.
Venezuela will not become a democracy overnight.
Meanwhile, an unprecedented wave of Venezuelan migrants seeking to enter the United States has created a political headache for the Biden administration. The migration issue has provided an incentive for Washington to back a humanitarian agreement between the opposition and the Maduro regime to allow the provision of aid to those in dire need. The deal stipulated that the UN would manage a $3.2 billion fund drawn from Venezuela’s frozen assets, most of which were controlled by the opposition and wielded as leverage against the regime. The agreement, however, is stalled over a variety of legal and bureaucratic hurdles.
The failure to follow through on this lower-stakes humanitarian agreement highlights how difficult it will be to achieve progress in political negotiations between Washington, Caracas, and the Venezuelan opposition. All previous attempts at negotiations between the government and opposition leaders have ended in frustration, with Maduro trying to bide his time and refusing to make any concessions. But the opposition has drawn some lessons from these fruitless efforts. It has moved away from maximalist demands and has agreed to select a candidate through a primary vote in October, in advance of the 2024 elections .
It is unrealistic, however, to expect free and fair elections next year that might endanger Maduro’s rule, even with U.S. sanctions relief on the table. As the Venezuela analyst Michael Penfold said in December in regard to the Chavistas: “ They care about sanctions . . . . B ut they care about power, too .” The United States and the opposition should temper their hopes for a quick transition away from dictatorship; Venezuela will not become a democracy overnight.
Even if Maduro were to fall tomorrow, the effort to restore basic institutions, rebuild Venezuela’s economy, and regain control of territory occupied by armed groups would take decades. The strength of domestic and international criminal networks will make Venezuela exceedingly difficult to govern. Moreover, it is almost certain that, under any scenario, Chavismo will remain a potent political force with core support.
Today, the opposition’s central task is to reconnect with Venezuela’s disaffected and distressed population. This will entail a sustained focus on grassroots political organization, party building, and participation in elections at all levels in Venezuela. Opposition forces need to offer practical solutions to the millions of citizens concerned primarily with bread-and-butter issues. Maduro’s repressive rule will surely complicate this approach, but it is the most sensible strategy moving forward.
Venezuela’s political situation is changing. On the regional front, the ascension to power of President Gustavo Petro in Colombia and President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil marks an important shift that could help prepare the ground for an eventual transition away from Maduro. Although both presidents have been accommodating toward Maduro and have resumed cooperation with Caracas, they could take advantage of this greater engagement to push for political change in Venezuela. And domestically, the Maduro regime remains engaged in discussions with Washington and the opposition. Against this backdrop, Washington should tread lightly and pay close attention to a set of crucial political, economic, and security issues that will demand policy adjustments as conditions evolve. It can do so by reestablishing its presence on the ground as soon as possible and reopening its embassy in Caracas, which Washington closed in 2019. This would enable the United States to be better informed and to play a more constructive role in Venezuela. Although taking this step would likely generate political resistance, failing to do so would seriously handicap Washington’s ability to deal with one of the worst crises in the hemisphere’s modern history. The Biden administration also needs to be engaged and flexible enough to provide incentives for Maduro to take steps to alleviate the country’s socioeconomic crisis but tough enough to get him to negotiate and press for concessions.
Despite the need for a new U.S. approach, however, it is clear that Washington can play at best a supporting role in the Venezuela drama. Only the country’s own protagonists will ultimately determine if and when Venezuela restores democratic rule; only a well-organized opposition rooted in Venezuela can effectively take on Maduro, who has proved to be a canny operator. And only by working together and playing the long game can the opposition change the dynamics that have kept Maduro in power for more than a decade.
Despite the Risks, Washington Must Give Diplomacy a Chance