SNAPSHOT: Venezuela uprising heightens risk of civil conflict and collapse of regime

On 30 April, dozens of members of the armed forces revolted against de facto leader Nicolás Maduro, heightening the risk of civil conflict and the government’s collapse.

Venezuelan military

KEY POINTS

  • On 30 April, self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó called on soldiers to join an uprising against de facto president Nicolás Maduro.
  • An undetermined number of soldiers followed Guaidó’s call, leading to violent incidents between soldiers loyal to both leaders, one death and at least 70 injuries.
  • The uprising has heightened the risk of further violent confrontations on 1 May, for which Guaidó has called for large May Day rallies against the Maduro government, as well as increased the risk of a civil conflict and the imminent collapse of Maduro’s regime.
  • Firms with interests in Venezuela should immediately enact measures to ensure the wellbeing of their staff and secure assets. Airlines should adhere to new US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) restrictions on flights imposed on 30 April.
Juan Guaidó
National Assembly president Juan Guaidó

DETAILS

  • In a social media video posted at approximately 0600 local time on 30 April, Guaidó, flanked by soldiers and fellow opposition leader Leopoldo López at La Carlota air base, east of Caracas, called on members of the armed forces to join an uprising against Maduro. Guaidó, leader of the national assembly, declared himself interim president on 23 January and was quickly recognised by numerous Western and Latin American countries. Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey – the main supporters of the de facto government – continue to recognise Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
  • Throughout 30 April, an undetermined number of military personnel – likely at least several hundred – publicly declared their support for Guaidó, joining anti-government protests in Caracas and other major cities, including Barquisimeto, Valencia and Maracaibo. Most of those who did so appeared to be low-ranking soldiers. In Caracas, soldiers from both sides engaged in violent clashes. There are no accurate figures on the number of casualties, however one person is reported to have been killed and a Caracas hospital reported at least seventy people were treated for their injuries, many from rubber bullet wounds.
  • At approximately 2100 on 30 April, Maduro appeared on television from the presidential palace, from where he gave a lengthy statement flanked by high-ranking military personnel. He accused the US, Colombia and domestic opposition parties of an attempted coup.
  • Earlier on 30 April, in statements given to news outlets, US National Security Advisor John Bolton claimed that three members of Maduro’s inner circle – defence minister Vladimir Padrino, supreme court chief judge Maikel Moreno, and presidential guard commander Iván Rafael Hernández Dala – had agreed that Maduro had to leave power. However, they later backtracked, according to Bolton.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo further claimed that Maduro had been prepared to leave Venezuela for Cuba on 30 April, but was dissuaded by Russia.
  • Also on 30 April, the FAA issued an order indefinitely banning all US operators from flying under 26,000 feet (7,924 meters) altitude over Venezuelan airspace, likely amid concerns that unrest could lead to anti-aircraft weapons being used against commercial aircraft. The FAA also instructed all US planes, including private jets, to leave the country within 48 hours.
Nicolás Maduro
De facto president Nicolás Maduro

ANALYSIS

  • Maduro’s retention of power is premised on his government’s ability to maintain control over the country’s 200,000-strong military. This is predicated on Maduro maintaining the support of the military leadership, which he seems to have at the moment.
  • The defection of soldiers on 30 April illustrates widespread discontent within the lower ranks of the military, and an increasing belief that Guaidó’s claim to power is credible and preferential. While one senior security official – Sebin intelligence agency head Manuel Cristopher Figuera – defected on 30 April, the majority of those who did so appeared to be lower-ranking soldiers.
  • Coordinated defections of senior military figures, as Pompeo claimed were imminent, would destabilise Maduro’s government to a much greater degree, however the vast majority of senior military and non-military officials remain aligned to Maduro.
  • Venezuela’s key international backers – Russia, Cuba, and China – maintain their support for Maduro, despite growing civil unrest and economic decline. These three countries, particularly Russia, view the maintenance of Maduro’s government as a geostrategic priority, rather than out of pure commercial and economic need.
  • The response of Maduro’s government to the events of 30 April is likely to trigger a counter-response from countries supportive of Guaidó, led by the US. While the US would prefer to oversee a peaceful transition of power, it has repeatedly stated that ‘all options are on the table’. Although a large-scale military intervention is unlikely, there is an increasing likelihood of the US military being deployed to work with regional counterparts, such as Colombia, Chile, and Brazil, to degrade the capabilities of Maduro’s government in the case of a further escalation.
  • The Venezuelan military’s support for Guaidó has likely been strengthened by the rapid decline in living conditions, following three large electricity blackouts since early March. The power outages have led to significant disruption, particularly to Venezuela’s devastated health service, further undermining the limited remaining support for the government, which is largely concentrated among state employees and supporters of the ruling PSUV party. The blackouts have significantly impacted military officials, who until then had largely had better living conditions than the majority of the general public.
  • While Maduro’s possible eventual departure would achieve an immediate objective of Guaidó’s, it would not lead to a rapid improvement in living standards and could lead to severe internal armed conflict, particularly led by colectivos, heavily-armed street gangs supportive of Maduro and his charismatic, deceased predecessor Hugo Chávez. High public expectations for food and improved medical access would be difficult to match in both the short- and medium term.
Blackout
A power outage in Caracas, March 2019

RESPONSE

  • Companies with interests in Venezuela should firstly ensure that all personnel are accounted for and that facilities are secured. Instruct in-country staff to shelter indoors, preferably at home, and establish regular contact to ensure their wellbeing. Indefinitely postpone visits to the country by staff based elsewhere.
  • Review contingency planning and monitor escalation trigger points to enact commensurate action-on measures for evacuation planning.
  • Factor the uprising and likely continued unrest into one-week operational planning. Instruct staff to work remotely and to stay away from office sites.
  • As part of crisis communication plans, security managers should regularly update executives on the status of staff and assets, as well as the developing political situation. Issue periodic updates throughout the day.
  • Airlines, both from the US and elsewhere, should adhere to the FAA’s new restrictions.
  • Monitor local and international media sources, ensuring information is credible and vetted. There is a large quantity of disinformation, both intentional and otherwise, available on social media; ensuring accurate information is essential for crucial decision making.
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