Will stalemate lead to resolution in Venezuela?

In a Q&A, political science professor Dorothy Kronick says negotiation is an uphill battle but may be the only way to settle the dispute over who will lead the troubled country.

Venezuelan flag flying

Since January, when National Assembly President Juan Guaidó asserted that he was Venezuela’s rightful leader because President Nicolás Maduro had been fraudulently elected, the political and humanitarian situation in the South American country has been closely watched. 

The political crisis sparked a steep acceleration in the decline of Venezuela’s once-booming economy. Food and water shortages have become commonplace, and electricity is scarce as well, drawing deep concern from the international community and the Venezuelan diaspora. 

As Maduro and Guaidó have jockeyed for position, the United States and Russia have chosen sides as well. U.S. officials have accused Russia of propping up Maduro’s regime, while seeming to signal American support for Guaidó’s effort to bring the military to his side, a move that failed late last month. 

So what happens now? Dorothy Kronick, a political science professor who has lived in Venezuela and closely studies its politics, explains what to look for as the two sides begin to come to the negotiating table. 


What do you make of the events of the past few weeks? Do you think this crisis is close to a breaking point?

Right now, the crisis looks more like stalemate than break point. After an attempted military uprising fizzled on April 30, the situation has settled back into an awful normal: Prediction markets give Maduro a 60% chance of staying in power through 2019, Venezuela’s satirical newspaper is running headlines about how endless shortages have created a shortage of jokes about shortages, and even U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is tweeting less about Venezuela, according to analysis by economist Francisco Rodríguez.

Paradoxically, stalemate could have a silver lining. Last week, government and opposition representatives traveled to Oslo for exploratory talks with the Norwegian government about a negotiated transition. Both Maduro and Guaidó publicly acknowledged the talks. If either side were in a position to expect imminent total victory, this wouldn't be happening. 

In other words, negotiation only stands a chance under stalemate.

Guaidó seemed to think the military would back him. Do you think that’s still a possibility?

It's certainly possible. It doesn't feel especially likely right now, but then any successful military uprising will be unanticipated by outside observers. If I anticipate it here in Philadelphia, Maduro and loyal officers will anticipate it, too, and quash it.

What’s your take on Maduro’s actions toward several opposition figures, including Leopoldo López, who appeared with Guaidó on April 30 after years of detention? Do you expect more arrests?

This past Saturday, a top government politician, Diosdado Cabello, said that the government does not plan to arrest Guaidó because "when your enemy is making mistakes, you should allow him to continue to do so." In other words, the government may see Guaidó as less of a threat at large than in jail. López, Guaidó's mentor, is currently a guest in the Spanish embassy in Caracas. 

But the government has arrested many other prominent opposition leaders, including the vice president of the National Assembly, Edgar Zambrano. Undoubtedly, he will not be the last.

There has been some debate, inside and outside the government, about what the U.S. role should be here. Do you think the American military will get involved? What are some of the implications of that?

I do not think that [U.S. National Security Adviser] John Bolton will succeed in pulling the U.S. military into Venezuela, nor do I think that U.S. military intervention would be a good solution. Among other problems, as Francisco Toro and others have written, the proliferation of pro-state para-state armed groups in Caracas and across the country bodes ill for any kind of post-intervention stability. 

Guaidó has at times seemed open to it, and the proportion of Venezuelans in favor of intervention has increased, too. For the moment, though, Trump appears against it. I don’t see the Marines showing up this summer.

What role does the larger international community have to play here?

The international community has been active in sending aid, committing more than $300 million and joining heroic Venezuelan organizations in providing food, medicine, and other necessities. But the role of the international community goes beyond aid. 

As I mentioned, the Norwegian government hosted preliminary talks between the Maduro and Guaidó administrations last week. The International Contact Group has a delegation in Caracas, also working on talks. 

It's an uphill battle: vocal politicians on both sides oppose negotiation, and even those who support it in principle worry that it's a pipe dream. I share that worry. But if the Venezuelan military doesn't turn, what else is there to root for?

Dorothy Kronick is an assistant professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.