President Donald Trump’s decision to weigh in on the political crisis currently rocking Venezuela has thrust the country into a greater tailspin — and could possibly set the stage for a future war.
The country is currently in the midst of a potentially explosive political standoff between two men who both claim to be the legitimate president of Venezuela: Nicolás Maduro, who was reelected president in May 2018, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Guaidó claims the 2018 election was rigged and that he, as the head of the National Assembly (the country’s legislative body), is now the rightful president according to the country’s constitution.
On Wednesday, Trump waded in, officially recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president and called Maduro’s claim to the presidency “illegitimate.” But Maduro has responded with defiance, and has so far shown no sign of stepping down.
The question now is what happens next. After speaking with US officials and experts, the unsettling answer is that no one truly knows. But Ronal Rodriguez, an expert at the University of Rosario’s Venezuelan Observatory in Colombia, laid out five possible scenarios.
The most probable one at the moment is that the push to depose Maduro fails, and he maintains power while plunging Venezuela into a greater economic and health crisis. The least likely outcome is that a foreign military invasion to remove Maduro sparks a civil war that could kill thousands and turn the already struggling nation into a failed state.
Here are five possible future scenarios, ranked in order of most to least likely to happen.
Scenario 1: Maduro stays in power
Despite the chaos of the past few days, Maduro is probably going to stay right where he is.
Here’s why: The leadership of Venezuela’s armed forces remain fiercely loyal to Maduro, officials and experts say. On Monday, for example, the military quickly put down an uprising from 27 anti-Maduro national guard members who seemingly aimed to foment the president’s ouster. Plus, Maduro loyalists control many of the country’s other important institutions, like the supreme court.
So Maduro has no incentive to step down, even though thousands throughout Venezuela rallied against him — and in support of Guaidó — on Wednesday. He’s already said he won’t leave, and has even started to fight back.
On Wednesday, just hours after Trump’s decision, Maduro severed all diplomatic ties with Washington and gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired back, saying that the US won’t abide by Maduro’s order because the administration doesn’t see him as the country’s president anymore.
Still, Maduro will likely stay in power. That’s bad news for many people in Venezuela — huge swaths of the population live in poverty because of the socialist dictator’s economic mismanagement.
Inflation in the country now hovers above a million percent, and could reach 10 million percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Food and medicine are too expensive for many to purchase. And since 2015, more than 3 million Venezuelans have left the country in search of better opportunities elsewhere, primarily in Colombia. (It’s expected that another 2 million will become refugees in 2019 alone.)
The political pressure on Maduro would certainly weaken him, and the economic pressure will complicate any attempt he may make to improve his country’s economic situation. The US, for example, has considered imposing an oil embargo on Venezuela. That threatens to drop Maduro’s approval rating lower than 20 percent, which it has remained close to in recent years.
The reality, then, is that the most likely result of the current anti-Maduro push is that he remains the country’s leader, albeit a badly bruised one.
Scenario 2: Maduro steps down, but his political ideology and catastrophic economic policies continue
Maduro could renounce the presidency if he’s able to choose a new leader who subscribes to the same political ideology he does.
He is a chavista, someone who believes former President Hugo Chávez’s brand of populist, authoritarian socialism is the best way to govern.
Chávez is a legendary figure in Venezuela who transformed the country’s political and economic landscape by nationalizing industries and funneling enormous amounts of government money into social programs.
Under his rule, Venezuela’s unemployment rate decreased by nearly 50 percent, income per capita more than doubled, the poverty rate fell by more than half, education improved, and infant mortality rates declined.
But he also stacked the country’s courts with political allies, passed laws restricting the ability of journalists to criticize the government, and consistently sought ways to remove checks on his power.
Maduro tried to follow Chávez’s playbook, but the results were ruinous for the country. Oil prices crashed in late 2014, and the economy crashed with it. And after political opponents took control of the National Assembly in December 15, he tried to dissolve it while placing his cronies in the Supreme Court and elsewhere. What Venezuela got was an increasingly authoritarian leader overseeing a crumbling economy.
Now, roughly 80 percent of the country — and thousands on the streets — oppose him. That may compel leaders of Maduro’s socialist party to ask him to step aside and see if another chavista can do better as president. There are at least four people, including a governor and a mayor, waiting in the wings for their moment. This may be it.
If this scenario plays out, it means Venezuela’s future will look fairly similar to if Maduro remains in office. Basically: new face, same government.
Scenario 3: the opposition takes over
The mounting domestic and international pressure may ultimately prove too much for Maduro, forcing him to cut a deal with the opposition and step aside.
It’s unclear what that deal might look like. One possibility is Maduro agrees to remain in power until a fair election is held and then departs so the winner can take over. Another is Maduro willingly hands the country over to Guaidó as a caretaker while he calls for new elections.
Late on Thursday, Guaidó told Univision that he might consider offering Maduro amnesty if he willingly leaves office. “In transitional periods, we’ve seen similar things happening,” he said. “We can’t discard any element. We have to be firm, to get humanitarian assistance. Our priority is our people.”
The hope is that a new leader, presumably not from Maduro’s socialist party, would steer the country back toward a democracy. But even this rosy outcome has its challenges.
That’s because some of Maduro policies remain popular, particularly his party’s emphasis on spending large amounts of state revenue on funding social programs such as free medical care and affordable food. And a new leader would almost certainly have to make tough choices — including cutting funding for some of those programs — to end Venezuela’s economic collapse.
That could lead citizens to bristle, and possibly push out, the new leader in a short amount of time. In other words, the person who replaces Maduro with sincere hopes of fixing Venezuela will have a very tough job — and may not be very popular for doing it.
Scenario 4: Venezuela’s military takes over
Venezuela’s military is one of the most — if not the most — powerful institution in the country. The military’s leadership backs Maduro’s claim to power. But if the political crisis worsens, the military could eventually decide it’s time to defect and choose to take matters into its own hands by deposing Maduro itself.
There’s a chance that military leaders would call for free and fair elections and then step aside for the winner.
But history suggests otherwise. Many fear that this scenario could bring back the horrifying days of military dictatorship in Venezuela (and South America in general). From 1948 to 1958, military leaders — especially Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez — oversaw the torture, political imprisonment, and murder of opponents. Corruption was also rampant, as funding for education and health was diverted to line the pockets of the elites.
The worry is that a military ruler — probably a senior officer, like a general — as in years past would sacrifice democratic accountability in the name of social stability.
That would likely mean a repressive society with fewer personal freedoms, and likely a high number of political prisoners. (Although, to be fair, that doesn’t seem so different from how Maduro runs his country now.)
A military dictatorship in Venezuela would also be quite the ironic outcome. Anti-Maduro protesters rallied on January 23 for a specific reason: It was the 61st anniversary of when a military dictatorship fell in the country.
Again, though, this scenario is pretty unlikely. On Thursday, Venezuela’s military leadership said they stood firmly behind Maduro and would oppose any coup attempt against him. So if Maduro goes, it probably won’t be because the military took over. But stranger things have happened.
Scenario 5: a foreign military invasion topples Maduro — and possibly sparks a civil war
In August 2017, Trump publicly floated the possibility of using some unspecified “military option” to oust Maduro and to address Venezuela’s political and economic misfortune. And according to multiple reports, Trump discussed taking possible military action against the country with several of his aides around that time as well.
Trump’s advisers, particularly then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, evidently convinced the president not to pursue that course of action.
But that was then. Today, the situation in Venezuela is very different: There is a clear opposition leader claiming the mantle of legitimacy who seems to have the support of a substantial portion of the Venezuelan people, and whom the US has publicly declared the true leader of the country.
On top of that, the advisers who steered Trump away from a “military option” last time around aren’t the same advisers he has now. McMaster and then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis are gone, and the far more hawkish John Bolton is now the national security adviser.
Citing Venezuela in a speech last November, Bolton said, “Under President Trump, the United States is taking direct action ... to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.” It’s therefore possible that he is much more open to US military intervention than McMaster was.
So there’s a chance (though not a big one) that Trump could choose to invade Venezuela — or, at least, support regional countries that might want to forcibly get rid of Maduro using their own militaries. So far, there doesn’t seem much appetite for that — on Thursday, for example, Brazilian generals told BuzzFeed News that they ruled out a military option.
Such an invasion, to be clear, would almost certainly be deadly, costly, and long-lasting, and could very easily plunge the country into a full-blown civil war.
And in a scenario like this, Maduro’s military would likely come to his defense. He’s already rallying his troops in case Trump launches an invasion. “You cannot lower your guard for even a second, because we will defend the greatest right our homeland has had in all of its history, which is to live in peace,” Maduro said last July.
Some might break off and join the invading forces, but either way, weeks or even months of brutal fighting would certainly follow, potentially leaving hundreds or thousands dead and cities ruined.
But Rodriguez and US officials warn it could get even worse: If Maduro were eventually deposed, the power struggle over who should succeed him could pit multiple factions in the country against each other, fueling a civil war. With no clear winner likely to emerge quickly, those factions could start to control and govern their own separate territories of Venezuela.
In effect, Venezuela as we know it could cease to exist and become more of a failed state than it is today. That’s obviously a worst-case scenario, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility. Similar situations have unfolded in other countries, including in Libya and Syria.
Thankfully, a military invasion — by either the US or another country — seems to be the least likely scenario right now. Venezuelan opposition figures and many Latin American leaders have said they’re opposed to such a move. And Trump, despite his public statement in 2017 about a possible “military option” and a 2018 comment about how Maduro could be “toppled very quickly” by a military coup, has otherwise been very clear and consistent about his desire to keep the US out of foreign wars.
One former top US military official I spoke to this week also said a US invasion wouldn’t be a good idea. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, who led US Southern Command from June 2009 to November 2012, told me he doesn’t “see a good reason” for the US military “to be employed in this situation.”
But Trump says he hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility. When asked by reporters Thursday if a military option was still on the table, the president said, “We’re not considering anything, but all options are on the table.”