Venezuela’s Maduro: How long can an isolated strongman last?

To many observers, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro may appear to be on his way out of the door. The authoritarian leader is facing mounting protests at home and a growing wave of pressure abroad, all demanding that he leave office.

Scores of foreign nations have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, and the United States is moving to cut off Maduro from much of the cash generated by Venezuela’s oil industry. But ousting a leader, even a broadly unpopular and isolated one, is not always a swift or inevitable process.

For one, international pressure is not necessarily a game-changer, even when countries take unusually forceful steps, such as recognizing an opposition figure as a country’s rightful leader.

“Governments for the most part try to avoid doing this kind of thing,” David Bosco, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, said in an interview last month. Recognizing challengers can present practical diplomatic problems, he added, and runs the risk of undermining allies who have their own domestic issues.

The United States has also led the charge to economically isolate Maduro’s government, most recently installing measures that blocked U.S. revenue from reaching the Venezuela’s state oil company — one of the country’s last remaining economic lifelines.

But even the strictest economic isolation can be circumvented. North Korea has survived years under strict economic sanctions, with little suggestion of serious domestic unrest or a leadership change. Notably, two of the countries that prop up North Korea economically — China and Russia — have said they are standing by Maduro, despite international condemnation.

Even if pressure campaigns did succeed, Maduro may have to consider what would come next if he left office. Not so long ago, an ousted leader might end up living in relative peace and quiet after giving up power. Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the Venezuelan president ousted after a military coup in 1958, spent the last years of his life in comfort in Spain — just one of a number of dictators who lived la dolce vita in Europe in their twilight years.

That era is over, for the most part. The threat of prosecution by legal bodies such as the International Criminal Court has severely limited the choices for ousted strongmen. Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ousted at the start of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, ended up in Saudi Arabia, where he has told reporters he suffers from “difficult financial conditions.” Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovych, who quit as president in 2014 after weeks of protests, now lives in exile in a secret location in Russia. He faces charges of treason if he returns home.

Without an escape plan, many strongmen may be tempted to stay in power. Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh was finally persuaded to leave office after 22 years in 2017 when he was offered refuge in Equatorial Guinea. He took with him an estimated $50 million in government money and a fleet of luxury cars, but he lives at the whim of his not-totally-stable host government.

Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, which Guaidó heads, has already passed a law that would grant amnesty to any soldiers who might help push Maduro from power. In a TV interview last month, Guaidó said he would do the same for Maduro if he agrees to step down peacefully; U.S. officials have mooted an “exit solution” as one plan (Cuba is one possible destination).

But Venezuela’s ruling elite goes far beyond the president. Any exit plan for Maduro would have to deal with the question of not only what would happen to him but also who else would be allowed to go with him. If Maduro is removed, focusing on him alone may offer only a surface-level solution to a much deeper problem.

Read more:

How Citgo, a U.S. oil company, became Venezuela’s lifeline

Venezuela’s oil gives Maduro little leverage against the United States

Venezuela’s crisis in 5 charts

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