Venezuela: Syria, Cuba, Pinochet or ‘Negotiated Transition’?

As protests rage on and the death toll stands at 39 in Venezuela, it seems that this time, more than ever, the end is near. Here are four end-game scenarios: Syria, Cuba, Pinochet or Negotiated Transition.

Negotiated Transition

This is the exit strategy most often mentioned in the international media. In this scenario, the opposition holds negotiations with key military leaders and moderates in the government to broker a transfer of power. The agreement features some kind of amnesty or safe exit for kleptocrats and maybe drug traffickers in both the military and PSUV who have been looting public coffers in exchange for their leaving power peacefully.

Pinochet Scenario

In this scenario, protests and social unrest reach a breaking point before the government grants any concessions. With no end to the chaos in sight, either before or after a collapse in security the military removes Maduro from power.

The military may or may not hold prompt election, but the Pinochet scenario ensues if whoever comes out on top is a rightwing strongman who crushes the PSUV and all its clients – colectivos, military, politicians – with extrajudicial imprisonment and disappearances.

Syria Scenario

Democratic-leaning factions in the military launch a coup, only to be opposed by the drug-trafficking generals who face U.S. prison sentences. The divided military, police and civilian factions create a civil war.

Comparing this scenario to Syria’s civil war is a little dramatic. I doubt entire cities will be leveled by warplanes. But I’d characterize this armed conflict with frequent political assassinations, car bombings and occasional firefights near strategic government sites.

Cuba Scenario

The socialist government and security forces manage to outlast the current demonstrations, who need to find food amid the humanitarian crisis. The protests end and the resistance effort fizzles out as it did in 2014. Maduro and the PSUV amend Venezuela’s constitution to form a military dictatorship based on the Cuban model.

Where’s your money?

In September 2015 I wrote argued that democracy would probably not be in the cards for Venezuela’s future. That was three months before midterm elections which saw the opposition win a supermajority, exciting all the punditry about change to come.

But democracy didn’t happen as the regime incrementally neutered the legislature, rejected a referendum on Maduro’s presidency and cancelled regional elections. In May 2016, I wrote Why Venezuela is More Like Syria than Cuba, which explains why I never believed the regime would cede any power whatsoever – because too many of them face U.S. prison for drug trafficking or money laundering.

Venezuela is such an explosive situation because the people controlling the levers of power will fight to the end. Not just the vice president and the PSUV #2, but the president’s freaking nephews for Christ’s sake.

Despite being right all this time, I’m not going to pretend I know how the end plays out. But I think the least likely scenarios are the most peaceful: the negotiated transition and the Cuba scenario.

I’m skeptical of a closed socialist state like Cuba for the simple fact that Venezuela is not an island. The government can’t keep people from leaving and they can’t keep contraband (or arms) from coming in.

And while I’m tempted to believe this won’t be as dramatic as Pinochet or Syria, I also think a peaceful, negotiated transition is unlikely because the regime is too big. Even now, as the country faces a humanitarian crisis and people are literally starving, Maduro still enjoys 20% support. That defies belief.

That tells me that some 20% of the population, or at least 10%, owe their livelihood to PSUV patronage. Many of these people, especially the low-level smugglers in the military and the armed colectivos, will be unemployed under a new government. They may face criminal charges or retribution. In the end, I think there are too many people invested in this government to let it simply fall without a fight.

You’ve heard the horror stories about Venezuela’s economy, so you may be surprised to learn that Venezuela’s GDP per capita is about 50% higher than that of Peru. According to the World Bank Venezuela’s 2013 GDP was $371 billion, almost twice Peru’s 2015 GDP of $190 billion. Venezuela’s three-year recession had knocked that down about 25%, but it’s still 50% more than Peru’s with a similar population of 30 million.

So the obvious question, given Peru is rich as fuck and obesity is becoming more of a problem than malnutrition, where is all that money in Venezuela going?

A good place to start that search is the 20% who support Maduro.

With drug trafficking, food trafficking, contraband smuggling and embezzlement from PdVSA and other state enterprises, clients of the political machine control literally tens of billions if not hundreds of billions of dollars. And when you have that much money in the hands of people who have access to Cuban-style secret police and military-grade weapons, you can assume there will be blood before they go to U.S. prison.

Thought Experiments

Time for me to be the ugly American and ask those politically incorrect questions that just have to be asked.

Was the 2002 coup against Hugo Chavez a good idea?

American interventions in Latin America are a hot-button issue. But in 50 or 100 years disinterested historians with no axe to grind will certainly view events differently. And given what became of Venezuela – economic ruin, tens of thousands killed by unchecked crime, humanitarian crisis due to lack of food and medicine, however many years of austerity to dig out – someone will inevitably conclude that the 2002 coup may have prevented a lot of misery.

Until now there was no good case study to contrast with Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende. But it’s not lost on Chileans that it is now one of Latin America’s most prosperous countries.

With Venezuela, a socialist was elected and implemented the same policies, but the military’s attempt to remove him failed. And Chavez led the country to ruin.

When is violent resistance justified?

The big unknown in Venezuela is the will of the security forces to repress protests. Will the police, national guard and military remain loyal to the government? If they do, let’s assume Venezuela succeeds in remodeling its government on the Cuban system. So the thought experiment is, at what point do you condone violent resistance?

To be clear, this doesn’t mean not throwing rocks at the cops who are firing tear gas at your protest. This means organizing a clandestine militia with guns and bombs to use against the security forces. At what point is that justified? Here are some options:

  • Government seizes your business and/or home
  • President dissolves Congress
  • President cancels elections
  • Government assumes control and/or implements censorship of traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers)
  • Government builds internet firewall to prohibit certain websites including Facebook and Twitter
  • Government removes freedom of movement / prohibits travel abroad / requires visa for leaving the country
  • Government prohibits freedom of assembly / peaceful protest
  • Government puts limits on free speech
  • Government outlaws your religion and/or your church’s assets are seized
  • Suspension of due process, opponents jailed without charges or trial
  • Someone in your family is jailed without due process
  • Government fires on unarmed protesters
  • Someone in your family is killed

Notice that most of these have already occurred in Venezuela.


I’ve been wasting valuable work time reading about Venezuela since moving to South America in 2008. So there is too much source material to list here. But here are my pics from the last few months, in addition to the daily check-in at Caracas Chronicles.

For a good piece on the military’s role in protecting or ending Maduro’s reign, see Government opponents appeal to Venezuela’s military as chaos grows. The money quote: “As the saying goes, [the military officers] are willing to accompany Maduro to the cemetery but not be buried with him.”

Another must-read is Dark Times in Venezuela Signal Bright Future for Organized Crime. It features this chart detailing some of government’s highest officials being investigated for crimes under U.S. jurisdiction. Notably, it’s missing PSUV #2 Diosdado Cabello.

Insight Crime has a sweet profile on the drug trafficking in Venezuela’s military: Cartel of the Suns.

There has been a lot of attention on the civilian militias known as “colectivos” since Maduro proposed arming ALL of them. Here’s a feature on them: Armed Civilian Bands in Venezuela Prop Up Unpopular President.

And hot off the press, In Venezuela’s Chaos, Elites Play a High-Stakes Game for Survival explains why PSUV members and military have remained loyal to the regime for this long. It’s not just about avoiding prison or unemployment, it’s the ideology.


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