BUENOS AIRES — With hopes fading for a quick and bloodless resolution to the continent’s biggest crisis, South America’s leading powers are increasingly spooked by the stalemate in Venezuela. The apparent failure of Venezuela’s military to rally around opposition leader Juan Guaido’s call that it no longer recognizes socialist President Nicolas Maduro as the country’s rightful leader.
Conservative governments in Colombia, Brazil and Argentina all quickly allied with the Trump administration in the campaign to drive Mr. Maduro from office, having experienced first-hand the destabilization Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian crisis has spawned.
“We need to be giving [the opposition] strong support,” Colombian President Ivan Duque said Wednesday in an Oval Office meeting with President Trump, where the Venezuelan crisis — and the millions of Venezuelan refugees now in Colombia, Brazil and other countries — were the main topics of discussion.
With some 60 countries now siding with Mr. Guaido, Mr. Duque told reporters Bogota would host a meeting of hemispheric allies next week to rally backing for the ouster of the Maduro government.
“I think the days for this dictatorship are about to end, and we have to continue working on that,” the Colombian president added.
But with Mr. Guaido having failed so far to win over the military and Mr. Maduro resorting to a tried-and-tested strategy of running out the clock on any challenge to his power, regional countries increasingly face the danger of being left in a diplomatic wasteland.
The longer that Mr. Guaido’s overtures — including his signature amnesty offer for regime supporters who come over to the opposition — are ignored with the 350,000-strong National Bolivarian Armed Forces, the more his initial momentum threatens to fizzle out, analysts warned.
“I am very worried because there already should have been some kind of major explosion,” former Venezuelan U.N. Ambassador Milos Alcalay told The Washington Times. “There have been many [individual] cases, but they’re not enough.”
To prop up Mr. Guaido’s shadow government, neighboring Colombia and Brazil are now focusing on logistics to help get millions of dollars worth of humanitarian aid across their border with Venezuela, while Argentina has intensified its efforts to broaden the anti-Maduro coalition.
Hosting Mr. Duque, Mr. Trump was careful to keep his options open without committing to any one course.
Asked if he had a back-up plan if Mr. Maduro dug in Caracas, the president said, “I always have a Plan B. And C and D and E and F. … A lot of things are happening in Venezuela that people don’t know about.”
But time seems to be on Mr. Maduro’s side, and the leftist leader has already taken steps to further clamp down on the security apparatus, use a subservient judiciary to go after his challenger and stake out ways of circumventing U.S. oil sanctions.
Citing the fraud-ridden 2018 election that gave Mr. Maduro a new six-year term, Mr. Guaido argues he is Venezuela’s rightful “interim president,” a claim recognized by the U.S., Canada, and a majority of Latin American and European governments. Mexico and Uruguay have stayed neutral in the clash, and Mr. Maduro has received backing from leftist governments in Cuba and Bolivia, as well as China and Russia.
At least 40 people have already been killed in clashes since Mr. Maduro declared himself interim president Jan. 23, The Associated Press reported.
But the shock-and-awe strategy launched last month to force Mr. Maduro from power has clearly hit a speed bump.
Hours before Mr. Guaido was to lead another round of protests in Caracas on Tuesday, the government-controlled Comptroller General’s office said it was investigating the opposition leader, while the regime’s feared No. 2 figure, Diosdado Cabello, said the interim president needed to be “cuffed, but at the right time.”
That the government — for now — hasn’t moved to arrest Mr. Guaido and other rebellion leaders, though, is itself telling, said Harold Trinkunas, of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. Both sides in the standoff seem to recognize there are lines they dare not cross.
“The fact that Guaido is [still free] is a sign of how cautiously the Maduro regime is playing this situation,” Mr. Trinkunas said. “They obviously perceive this as a very high-risk environment.”
But if Mr. Maduro does find a way to consolidate his hold on power, the dozens of countries that have declared him illegitimate may face an unpleasant dilemma, Mr. Trinkunas warned.
“The policy of recognizing Guaido is very hard to walk back,” he said. “The countries that did that are going to have a hard time going back to saying, ‘Oh, sorry, our mistake. We’re going back to recognizing Maduro as president.’”
A protracted diplomatic stalemate, though, could well expose significant rifts within the anti-Maduro coalition now simmering just below the surface, Mr. Trinkunas added, a scenario that bodes particularly badly for the Trump administration. Venezuela’s opposition forces have historically been plagued by internal divisions, power struggles and an inability to expand their appeal beyond the urban elites.
“Certainly, on the one hand, it’s complicated for Maduro,” he said. “But [it’s not] easy for the United States, either, because the next steps the United States could take to try to put more pressure on Maduro risk breaking that international coalition.”
Troubled by Venezuela’s economic meltdown and resulting mass migration, and by the regime’s human-rights abuses and suspected ties to the drug trade, the major Latin American nations have so far presented an unusually united and forceful anti-Maduro bloc. Mr. Maduro himself bears some of the blame for the unity of his opponents.
“The blunders of a government that insults Latin American presidents on a daily basis, calling them puppets of the United States [and] the worst insults … has, in turn, caused very hostile reactions,” said Mr. Alcalay, who left his post in 2004 in a clash with populist President Hugo Chavez, Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor. “The rejection is apparent.”
Still, the leftist leaders in Uruguay and Mexico have insisted on a policy of “non-intervention,” a potential regional wrinkle Argentine President Mauricio Macri, among Mr. Maduro’s most vociferous critics, sought to smooth out with Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez in an impromptu Wednesday meeting that diplomats billed as “urgent.”
And across the Atlantic, Mr. Maduro’s and Mr. Guaido’s dueling inaugurations triggered much caution and hesitation, with European nations that belatedly recognized the opposition challenger also favoring a new round of talks with the regime, a proposal the opposition has rejected as a stalling tactic.
“That’s a fragmentation line that so far has been papered over, but is still there,” Mr. Trinkunas noted.
Both the opposition and its international backers, meanwhile, seem to have underestimated Mr. Maduro’s grip on the military, whose top brass repeatedly assured him of their unwavering loyalty in recent weeks.
“Evidently … the [high-ranking officers], among whom you’ve got governors, legislators, ambassadors, bank presidents, some drug traffickers, others terrorist allies, this elite, this privileged nomenclature will not switch,” he said.
And even those susceptible to Mr. Guaido’s idealistic pleas — he has appealed to the military’s traditional role as a guardian of the constitutional order and vowed it would play an “important role” in a post-Maduro Venezuela — would face a daunting scenario if they turned on the regime, Mr. Trinkunas added.
“The military is very ideological at the senior levels in favor of Maduro and highly surveilled by military intelligence — both Cuban and Venezuelan — in the middle and junior ranks,” Mr. Trinkunas said. “So it’s just too risky to defect at this point.”
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said Mr. Guaido has been able to generate unexpected support from poorer regions of the urban enclaves and countryside, but with few exceptions, the military has shown few signs of switching sides.
“The military has had more than one opportunity to withdraw support for Maduro,” Mr. Moya-Ocampos told the AP this week. “It has consistently continued to back him.”
Drawing on his experience as an ambassador to Romania in the early 1990s shortly after the violent overthrow of longtime dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, Mr. Alcalay said he hoped even the most unquestioning generals would, at some point, find Venezuela’s economic and social meltdown simply unbearable.
“Ceausescu was tried by his own trusted generals,” the veteran diplomat noted. He cited a quote from former Venezuelan President Luis Herrera: “The military is loyal until it stops being loyal.”
⦁ Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report from Washington.