FOUR MONTHS after a failed U.S.-backed putsch against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, his regime has hunkered down, betting that it can outlast its domestic and foreign opponents. For the moment, at least, it seems to have the upper hand.
Having broken off negotiations with opposition leaders over a new election last month, Mr. Maduro last Monday signed an ersatz deal with minor parties that he may use to undermine the opposition-controlled National Assembly. He has partially liberalized the economy, reducing the inflation rate from seven to six digits and causing food and other consumer goods to reappear in some stores. And he has strengthened ties with Colombian guerrilla movements and deployed 150,000 troops to the border, seeking to intimidate a country that, along with the Trump administration, has pushed hardest for regime change in Caracas.
This month, prompted by Colombia and the United States, the signatories to a 1947 inter-American defense pact known as the Rio Treaty agreed to invoke it because of the threat posed by Venezuela to its neighbors. Its 19 members are expected to meet at the United Nations later this week to consider more steps to pressure the Maduro regime; the treaty provides for actions ranging from diplomatic sanctions to armed intervention.
Neither the United States nor Venezuela’s neighbors support military action, so barring direct aggression by Venezuela or the Colombian groups now based on its territory, that’s unlikely to be a means for toppling the regime. U.S. officials still hope for an internal military rebellion against Mr. Maduro, but there is no sign of one — and the extensive Cuban intelligence apparatus in the barracks is dedicated to rooting out would-be rebels.
The big losers in this stalemate are ordinary Venezuelans, who continue to suffer from an extraordinary humanitarian crisis. Those who cannot pay $14 for a box of imported cornflakes still struggle to find food. According to the website Caracas Chronicles, 80 percent of health clinics have closed. Some 5,000 people a day flee the country, adding to the more than 4 million who have already left. But nearby countries, including Ecuador, Chile and Trinidad and Tobago, are taking steps to curtail entry by Venezuelans. The Trump administration, despite its anti-Maduro rhetoric, has not granted protected status to Venezuelans who have reached the United States.
U.S. strategy amounts to slowly increasing sanctions while trying to persuade European and Latin American governments to join in. It’s betting that the regime lacks the resources to survive. Venezuelan oil production, having dropped 69 percent in two years, is down to just over 700,000 barrels a day — and half a million of those go to China and Russia to repay debts. Gold reserves have dwindled to $4.2 billion, from $19 billion in 2011, according to Russ Dallen of Caracas Capital Markets. Since it has defaulted on $25 billion in debt, Venezuela is unable to borrow.
Can the Maduro government survive this squeeze? The Trump administration thinks not, while Mr. Maduro is guessing he can, at least until the next U.S. election. Meanwhile, Venezuelans starve.