The Nightmare in Venezuela Finally Has the World's Attention. Can the Opposition's Gamble Pay Off?

Ciara Nugent

Two men claim to be the President of Venezuela, which has the largest oil reserves on the planet and so little food that, in a single year, the average citizen lost 24 lb. One, Nicolás Maduro, secured a second term in a 2018 election widely regarded as a sham. The other, Juan Guaidó, took an oath of office on Jan. 23, in a maneuver that was equal parts audacious and ingenious, and that offered the nation at least the possibility of a peaceful way out of its catastrophe.

The trick was finding a possible opening in the mire of Maduro’s authoritarianism. By fiat and force, Maduro has spent the last few years remaking the Caracas government to his liking—replacing justices on the Supreme Court, declaring emergency rule, and sidelining the parliament that the opposition had won in a free and fair ballot in 2015. Maduro also created from whole cloth the electoral apparatus that allowed him to remain in office without facing an opponent—a violation of the country’s 1999 constitution. In response, the leader of parliament—Guaidó—said the presidential office had essentially been left vacant in January, the start of Maduro’s rigged second term. He then invoked the constitution’s Article 233, which, in a power vacuum, calls for the person in his role to temporarily assume the presidency.

He was not acting alone. In the days that followed, most Latin American countries, the U.S. and much of Western Europe recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of the most troubled country in the hemisphere, and mounted intense economic and diplomatic pressure on Maduro to step down. In Caracas, massive public demonstrations gathered to support the 35-year-old.

By uniting a divided opposition, Guaidó appears to have given Venezuela its first real chance to restore democracy since its socialist experiment collapsed into economic chaos in 2014. “The difference now is there’s absolute hope,” he told TIME a week after the ceremony, his voice hoarse from days of campaigning. “Despair, disillusionment and frustration, have become energy, strength, a determination to fight.”

But the fight won’t be easy. Venezuela’s powerful military stands in the opposition’s way, so far refusing to withdraw its support for the regime. Even as Maduro has driven his country’s collapse and caused the worst refugee crisis in the western hemisphere—3 million Venezuelans have fled—he has carefully insulated himself from removal. With widespread corruption and organized crime among the military and political elite a fact of political life for years, the regime has built a power structure designed to ensure the status quo at all costs. “We’re not talking about a conventional ideological dictatorship,” says Alejandro Rebolledo, a Venezuelan judge who specializes in organized crime. (He was forced into exile in Miami when parliament tried to appoint him to the supreme court in 2017 and the government threatened to arrest him.) “We are talking about a mafia state.”

A crowd gathers to listen to opposition leader Juan Guaidó during a news conference on Jan. 25, 2019.

The foundations of today’s crisis, and of Maduro’s power, were laid two decades ago, when socialist Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 on a pledge to eliminate poverty. He delivered, for a time, using vast oil revenues from the state oil company PDVSA to fund wide-ranging welfare schemes, including free education and subsidized utilities.

But the generosity went hand in hand with corruption. Chávez gifted key power positions to his allies, including many military figures, in an effort to shore up support. When strikes against his cronyism led to an economic crisis in 2002, he imposed currency controls, pegging Venezuela’s bolivar to the dollar and effectively allowing the government to pick and choose who could buy foreign exchange and import goods. Like other Venezuelan leaders before him, Chávez also failed to put aside much oil money for leaner times. “Oil revenue was never seen as a tool for development,” says Raúl Gallegos, a political analyst and author of Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela. “It was money to be spent immediately, throwing a big national party to make everyone support the government.”

The party ended in 2014, when a drop in the global oil price sent revenues tumbling. It was a year after Chávez died and Maduro, his chosen successor, had taken the reins. Currency controls hampered recovery, causing cash shortages and unprecedented hyper-inflation, which is set to top 10,000,000% in 2019. Since Maduro came to power, parliament figures show Venezuela’s economy has contracted 53%.

Maduro blames the chaos on the U.S., a reliable bogeyman in Latin American politics, given Washington’s long history of interference in the region. As his popularity plummeted, Maduro clamped down on political opposition. Security forces have killed hundreds in protests. Nearly 300 political prisoners are behind bars. (TIME reached out to Maduro’s party for comment but received no response.)

Life for ordinary Venezuelans has become an ordeal. “We’ve lost our quality of life,” Guaidó says. Nine out of 10 families can’t afford enough food. Violence has spiked. A tenth of the population have fled the country. Women sell their hair at the Colombian border for cash to continue their journey.

President Nicolás Maduro announces he will break off diplomatic ties with the U.S., in response to Trump's acknowledgment of Guaidó as

But not everyone is suffering. Determined to buy loyalty, Maduro has granted the 160,000-strong military unprecedented freedom to engage in illicit money-making schemes. Parliament estimates that friends of the government have stolen at least $350 billion from public bodies in recent years. Investigations show high-ranking members of the military are involved in drug-trafficking and fuel-smuggling. (Maduro denies any criminal wrongdoing.) “The levels of crime in Venezuela in the last few years have been unimaginable—higher than I can remember in any other case in recent history,” says Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States. “There will be money laundered in every Latin American country.”

The military also controls key enterprises, including importing food—a vast industry in a country that, according to parliament, produces less than a third of what it needs to feed the population. U.S. prosecutors are investigating military commanders and other government officials for allegedly siphoning money out of national food programs, even as five or six children die every week of malnutrition, according to an NGO. The lower-ranks take a cut during distribution, stealing from food trucks they are in charge of or selling goods on the black market that has thrived since food shortages became common. “The programs to import food are precisely designed to be inefficient and to allow high levels of corruption,” says Carlos Paparoni, an opposition lawmaker and head of the parliamentary finance commission.

Even a government food aid program set up in 2016 to alleviate hunger among the needy is part of the support-buying, Paparoni says. “It’s not charity, it’s a tool of social control,” he says, adding that soldiers delivering the box often enter recipients homes to question them about their political allegiances. “If you’re not with Maduro, they don’t give you a box.”

In 2017 Maduro handed leadership of PDVSA to a general, allegedly in a “crusade” against corruption by former executives. “It was to ensure the military’s loyalty,” says Gallegos. “It remains an extremely corrupt organization, and these people don’t have the knowledge to run an oil industry.” In two years, under-investment in equipment and a lack of expertise have halved production to 1.1 million barrels per day—the lowest it has been for almost 70 years.

Tear gas floats over the pavement during a protest in El Rosal in Caracas on Jan. 23, 2019.

All the while, Venezuela’s powerful military counter-intelligence service, DGCIM, has kept close tabs on the armed forces, monitoring for signs of dissent and quickly putting down small-scale rebellions. On Jan. 21, 27 members of the National Guard, the branch charged with containing domestic unrest, tried to start an uprising. The opposition say they are being tortured in the basements of the intelligence agency. The military does not just fear losing influence, says Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela analyst at IHS Markit. They also worry about being crushed for rebelling, or facing punishment if there is regime change. “They know that if Maduro falls, they all fall.”

The opposition is promising amnesty for those in the regime who help restore democracy. Guaidó has asked the public to print out the amnesty law from the parliament website and approach soldiers with a copy. He claims he has held clandestine meetings with members of the military and that Maduro’s grip is weakening as the life they enjoyed under him starts to collapse. “There are fewer and fewer of those benefits,” Guaidó says. “The mafia structure they have built is crumbling.”

The oil industry contributes 90% of Venezuela’s government revenue. The U.S. buys almost half of Venezuela’s oil and sanctions on PDVSA imposed by the Trump Administration on Feb. 4 are expected to cripple the already beleaguered industry. U.S. refineries can’t buy Venezuelan crude unless they pay money into bank accounts unrelated to Maduro, whom U.S. officials now refer to as “the former President.” “We’re cornering the regime now,” says Rebolledo, the Venezuelan judge.

But the regime still has powerful allies. Russia and China, who have each loaned and invested billions of dollars in Maduro’s government, are continuing to support him. Turkey continues to buy Venezuela’s gold. Gallegos, the political analyst, says those allies could feasibly step in to take over Venezuelan oil fields once U.S. companies are forced to pack up and leave in six months’ time under the sanctions.

A woman fixes a flag on her chest during a news conference by Guaidó at the Bolivar Square of Chacao in Caracas on Jan. 25, 2019.

Inside Venezuela, the opposition is focusing on leading daily street protests, seen as essential to pressuring the military to switching sides. They are sometimes met with smaller counter-demonstrations by Maduro supporters. “The military as a whole is still behind Maduro, but if the demonstrations continue or become overwhelming, that could cause a break in the chain of command,” says Moya-Ocampos. On Feb. 2, a high-ranking air-force general defected in a video shared on social media, claiming, “Ninety percent of the armed forces are not with the dictator.” The same day, protesters in the state of Lara captured footage of police in riot gear standing back to allow people to pass, suggesting resolve is weakening in some parts of the security forces.

A key test of the military’s loyalty is now approaching. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Feb. 2 that the U.S. is sending humanitarian aid at Guaidó’s request. Trucks containing food and other supplies are expected to arrive at the Colombian border city of Cúcuta in mid-February, says Moya-Ocampos. “The question is, Will they allow the aid in, with any foreign officials escorting it, or will they block it?”

The larger question is whether the U.S. will send troops. President Trump and Guaidó have both refused to rule out a U.S. military intervention, which Guaidó calls a last resort. Many in the international community fear violent confrontation is inevitable. “It all depends on the madness and aggression of the northern empire and its Western allies,” Maduro told a Spanish journalist, summoning the specter of Yankee imperialism. “We’re demanding that no one intervene in our internal matters and we’re preparing to defend our country.”

Guaidó insists Venezuela can find a peaceful way forward, without foreign military intervention and without the civil war many fear. “No one is willing to sacrifice themselves for Maduro or take up arms to fight for him,” he says. “Increasingly, the obvious choice is to put it all aside.” Guaidó has a three-pronged plan: first, remove Maduro from the presidency; second, establish a transitional government; and third, call free and fair elections.

A man ties a piece of fabric to cover his face during a protest in the El Rosal area of Caracas on Jan. 23, 2019.

However the next few weeks and months unravel, Venezuelans have a long road to restore their country and way of life. The country’s natural resources have been ransacked, its industries crippled and its institutions corroded, says Rebolledo. “We don’t only need a change of government. We need to rebuild our state.” Almagro says foreign governments will need to put investigators to work on repatriating some of the dirty money that has bled out of the country in recent years.

But before they can look to the future, Venezuelans are looking to Guaidó. As he spends his days weaving through Caracas, rushing from protest to parliament session to strategy meeting, and dodging the latent threat of arrest, he seems unfazed. “There’s certainty that we are going to change things,” he says. “That energy is a very powerful motor.”