Violent protests and risk of military rebellions to increase as standoff between government and opposition continues – Venezuela Analysis

Written by Federico Sujarchuck 

Edited by Ollie Wiltshire

Executive Summary

On January 10, the National Assembly declared Juan Guaido, the recently-elected president of the body, the country’s interim President. A subsequent wave of anti-government protests left at least 50 killed and over a thousand arrested.

The shared economic and political interests between President Maduro’s government and the Venezuelan military leadership are likely to help him retain power over the coming months.

A number of strategic, tactical, and political factors suggest that a foreign military intervention in Venezuela is improbable, though the US and its regional allies are likely to continue with economic and diplomatic pressure.

Increasingly violent anti-government protests are highly likely throughout Venezuela for the foreseeable future, with Caracas and the border towns with Colombia and Brazil to remain focal points.

Avoid all travel to Venezuela and all areas bordering the country.

Current Situation

On the ground: 

  • On January 10, while President Nicolas Maduro’s inauguration ceremony was taking place, and anti-government protests were happening throughout the country, the opposition-majority National Assembly declared invalid the 2018 reelection of President Nicolas Maduro, and declared Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president.
  • On January 13, Juan Guaido was arrested and subsequently released by the Servicio Bolivariano de Inteligencia Nacional (SEBIN), the country’s intelligence agency.
  • On January 23, nationwide opposition protests were forcibly dispersed by security forces.
  • On January 25, sources claim that around 400 Russian military advisors were sent to Venezuela to protect Maduro from any attempt by opposition sympathizers in the armed forces to detain or kill him.
  • On January 30, nationwide opposition protests were forcibly dispersed by security forces, who also arrested a number of foreign journalists, including Chilean, French, Spanish nationals.
  • On February 5, the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana (FANB) blocked the Tienditas border crossing with Colombia in order to stop the import of humanitarian aid from several countries including the US. The Tienditas bridge is one of the three between Colombia and Venezuela.
  • On February 13, the Cuban government claimed that the US is transporting a sizeable contingent of troops to their bases in the Caribbean.
  • On February 16, President Maduro authorized a wider FANB deployment throughout the Colombia-Venezuela border.
  • On February 18, several EU parliamentarians who arrived to hold talks with the opposition are expelled on President Maduro’s orders.
  • On February 19, Venezuelan authorities closed the maritime borders with Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao, disrupting air and maritime travel. The closure was reportedly implemented to prevent unapproved deliveries of humanitarian aid.
  • On February 20, the national truckers’ union announced their support for Juan Guaido, becoming the first Venezuelan union to openly do so, and held a protest outside the Ministry of Transportation in Caracas.
  • On February 21, Venezuela closes border with Brazil in order to prevent unapproved deliveries of humanitarian aid
  • On February 22, Venezuelan troops opened fire against protesters mounting a roadblock in Kumarakapay, a town in Bolivar State near the Brazilian border, killing two and injuring 14.
  • On February 23, security forces forcibly dispersed protesters at the Las Tienditas border crossings with Colombia and the border town of Santa Elena, located ten kilometers away from Brazil, killing eight and injuring 300. On the same day, vice-president Delcy Rodriguez announced that the border crossings with Colombia will be closed until “the coordinated actions of violence against our people and our territory come to an end”.
  • On February 26, a team of six journalists from the US is detained for nearly three hours by the government and later deported to the US.
  • On February 27, Colombian authorities reopen the border in Norte de Santander Department though Venezuelan authorities continue to block the entrance to their side of the border.
  • On March 4-5, nationwide anti-government protests take place following Juan Guaido’s return to Venezuela on March 4.


  • On January 5, the National Assembly elected Juan Guaido of the center-left Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) (VP) party as the body’s new President.
  • On January 10, while President Nicolas Maduro’s inauguration ceremony was taking place, and anti-government protests were happening throughout the country, the opposition-majority National Assembly declared invalid the 2018 reelection of President Nicolas Maduro, and declared Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president. On the same day, the Organization of American States (OAS), voted not to recognize the legitimacy of President Nicolas Maduro’s second six-year term.
  • On January 13, the OAS announced that they will accept ambassadors on behalf of the National Assembly.
  • On January 23, President Nicolas Maduro gave US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country amid violent protests in Caracas, and throughout the country. On the same day, the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, and the US recognized Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela. The governments of Bolivia, China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and Turkey declared their support for President Nicolas Maduro.
  • On January 26, France, Germany, Spain, and the UK issued an ultimatum to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to hold free elections within eight days or they will recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim President.
  • On the same day, Russia and China blocked various attempts by the US to condemn the Maduro administration at the UN Security Council (UNSC), and President Nicolas Maduro decided to postpone breaking diplomatic ties with the US in spite of the country’s decision to remove its diplomatic staff from its embassy in Caracas.
  • On January 27, Venezuela’s military attache to Washington DC announced that he is defecting to the opposition, though most senior military personnel in Venezuela has declared their support for Maduro.
  • On January 28, the US Treasury Department announced that the proceeds of the purchase from Venezuela’s national oil company, Petroleo de Venezuela (PDVSA), by US customers will be withheld from being paid to President Nicolas Maduro’s regime.
  • On the same day, Juan Guaido in consultation with the National Assembly appoints a new board of directors to PDVSA and its subsidiaries.
  • On February 2, a Venezuelan Air Force General defected to the opposition.
  • On February 4, 13 European States, including France, Germany, Spain, and the UK recognized Juan Guaido as interim President of Venezuela after President Nicolas Maduro refuses to hold elections. The African Union (AU) rejected statements from Venezuelan officials that it supports Maduro.
  • On the same day, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that the UN would not take part in third-party led initiatives in order to remain credible with the two parties directly involved, namely Guaido and Maduro.
  • On February 8, Guaido claimed that he cannot discard the possibility of requesting the US to intervene militarily if President Maduro continues to hold onto power. US officials confirmed that the country will not use military force to guarantee the passage of humanitarian aid into Venezuela.
  • On February 18, President Maduro announced that Russia will be sending the country over 300 tons of humanitarian aid through the Maiquetia Airport in Caracas.
  • On February 23, President Maduro announced that Venezuela is breaking diplomatic ties with Colombia.
  • On February 25, the Lima Group, a multilateral body composed of 13 Latin American nations and Canada, issued a statement of principles regarding the Venezuelan crisis. In said statement, the group explicitly rejects the possibility of a regional military intervention in the country, though they vow to increase the economic and diplomatic pressure on Maduro’s government.
  • On February 27, Peruvian authorities announced that visas for Venezuelan diplomats loyal to President Maduro will be revoked on March 8.


Venezuela in the run-up to the 2019 presidential crisis

  • On December 2015, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition won control of the National Assembly for the first time in 16 years, riding a wave of popular discontent amid a prolonged recession and rising inflation after the collapse of oil prices. In the week following the election, before the opposition took actual control of the National Assembly, the ruling Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) voted to change the composition of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) with the appointment of 13 titular judges and 21 substitute judges loyal to Maduro.
  • On March 2017, the TSJ ruled that the National Assembly was “in a situation of contempt”, stripping the legislative body of its powers and taking those powers for itself; which meant that the TSJ would have been able to create laws. The TSJ quickly reverses its decision amid international Nonetheless, the event prompts months of anti-government protests that ultimately leave more than a hundred dead.
  • On June 2017, a number of security personnel led by dissident pilot Oscar Perez hijacked a helicopter and launched several grenades at the TSJ and the Interior Ministry buildings in Caracas before escaping into the jungle. Following this highly symbolic attack, Perez and his supporters launched a number of raids on Guardia Nacional Bolivariana (GNB) barracks over the following months before being killed by security forces during a FANB-led security operation in western Caracas on January 15, 2018.
  • On July 2017, authorities organized a referendum, boycotted by the opposition, to reform the constitution and thus approve the creation of a Constituent Assembly. While the body was originally tasked with rewriting the constitution, it also took over crucial legislative functions, effectively making the National Assembly irrelevant in public affairs. In the same month, a TSJ in exile is created in Panama by former TSJ judges that refused to declare the National Assembly in contempt of law.
  • On February 2018, negotiations between the government and the opposition collapsed amid disagreements over the timing of the next presidential election. The government announces that the vote will be held in the first half of the year, and the main opposition parties pledge to boycott it.
  • On May 2018, President Maduro comfortably won re-election over a lesser-known opposition candidate amid low turnout and widespread allegations of electoral fraud. The domestic opposition, Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, the US, and the Lima Group announce that they will not recognize the results.


Assessments & Forecast

Shared economic, political interests between Maduro and military leadership likely to bolster current regime in medium-term, small rebellions still liable to occur

President Maduro’s dependence on the FANB for survival is a consequence of the regime’s significant loss of support since the opposition victory in the legislative elections of December 2015, and, most importantly, since the allegedly fraudulent 2018 Presidential Election. President Maduro has been able to keep the overwhelming majority of the military loyal to him by allowing it to have a significant level of independence from civilian oversight, and through offering a combination of prestigious and lucrative opportunities. Over the last years, the salary of a FANB soldier has been higher than that of most college-educated professionals. Moreover, the FANB has around 2,000 Generals as of late-2018, a figure greater than all of NATO countries combined. This situation has created a symbiotic relationship between the regime and the FANB’s current leadership since the former needs the latter to survive, and the latter needs the former to keep its unprecedented levels of influence, and its huge profits from various schemes and, most notably, alleged links to narco-trafficking.

The military and its loose narco-trafficking network, known as the Cartel de los Soles (Cartel of the Suns, in reference to the insignia used by FANB Generals), have been said to convert Venezuela over the last decade into a key transit country for drug shipments leaving Colombia. Under these circumstances, it is unlikely that a majority of the FANB will stop supporting President Maduro.

However, the possibility of small groups of military personnel and government officials rejecting the legitimacy of Maduro’s government and launching localized military rebellions, akin to the one led in 2017 by Oscar Perez, is likely to increase going forward. This due to the unprecedented levels of unpopularity surrounding President Maduro, as well as the deepening of the country’s socio-economic crisis, which means that even the relatively well-paid rank-and-file of the FANB are still seeing declining economic status. Moreover, as international actors such as Cuba, China, and Russia get increasingly involved in the country, supporting the regime militarily, financially, and politically, it is possible that the US could start supporting these groups in a similar way. While precedent suggests that a military rebellion under these circumstances is unlikely to succeed, considering the dire socio-political situation, Maduro’s lack of democratic legitimacy, and the volatile situation on the ground, the possibility of a relatively small-scale rebellion snowballing into an all-out revolution or a civil conflict scenario cannot be completely ruled out.

Foreign military intervention improbable, though US & regional allies are likely to continue increasing economic, diplomatic pressure

A foreign military intervention against President Nicolas Maduro seems unlikely in the short-medium term for a variety of reasons. From a strategic perspective, it is unlikely as Venezuela has not yet fully collapsed as a functioning State and, in spite of its increasingly militarist posture, has not seriously challenged the sovereignty of another state. Thus, there is no clear casus belli that could be used to either assemble a regional military coalition or to unilaterally intervene. Moreover, Venezuela is not strategically relevant enough for Washington’s national interest as it imports only nine percent of its oil from PDVSA. From a tactical perspective, while Venezuela is undoubtedly going through an unprecedented economic crisis, the country still has a relatively well-armed military that acts as a deterrent, to the US, and to a greater extent to Brazil and, particularly, Colombia, the neighboring country with whom the Maduro regime has its worst relations.

From a broader political perspective, a US-led intervention in Venezuela seems particularly unlikely given the still heightened sensitivities in the region over US military involvement in Latin America during the Cold War. As such, a US-led intervention under these circumstances has the risk of making Maduro a popular figure again among large segments of the Latin American population, given that he could be perceived as an underdog fighting “US imperialism”.   

Under these circumstances, it is likely that the EU, the US, and the Lima Group will continue their strategy of gradually increasing economic and diplomatic pressure on the Maduro administration, and supporting the opposition, in an attempt to foster division among the country’s pro-government elite, particularly those in the Venezuelan armed forces. In turn, President Maduro’s international allies, such as China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and, to a lesser degree, Turkey are likely to step up their economic, humanitarian, and military assistance to the government in the coming weeks and months as an attempt to ease pressure on the Venezuelan government. The fact that Maduro has closed the border with a number of countries in order to avoid the passage of US, EU aid, while, on February 18, allowed Russia to send over 300 tons of humanitarian aid illustrates this assessment.

 Violent protests expected throughout Venezuela, particularly in Caracas, as well as near border crossings with Brazil, Colombia

Considering the magnitude of the country’s economic collapse, the unlikelihood of a US, regional, or domestic military intervention, the stark authoritarian shift of the Maduro administration, and the willingness of the majority of the Venezuelan military to support him so far, increasingly violent anti-government protests are highly likely going forward. In Caracas, focal points for protest include Plaza Brion, Plaza Bolivar, Parque Cristal, Parque Central, Parque Caracas, Paseo de los Proceres, El Junquito, Francisco Fajardo Highway, the TSJ, the Presidential Palace, and the National Electoral Council. In light of the ongoing tensions over President Maduro’s recent decision to close the Brazilian and Colombian borders, violent protests will probably unfold at the main border crossings with these countries.

The way in which these protests will develop is likely to be similar to the wave of anti-government protest witnessed in 2017, that left at least 165 people killed by security forces. Precedent suggests that a violent crackdown of the opposition-led protests by security forces and pro-government militias will include the use of mass arrests, arrests of foreign journalists covering the protest, tear gas, and other forcible dispersal measures, such as lethal and non-lethal ammunition.


  1. Avoid all travel to Venezuela and all areas bordering the country.
  2. If operating in Venezuela, check the preparedness of emergency evacuation plans and update all security protocols
  3. Those still operating or residing in Venezuela, particularly and the border areas with Brazil and Colombia, are advised to minimize non-essential travel while avoiding all travel to the vicinity of any demonstrations that may arise given the extreme likelihood of violent civil unrest.
  4. Those outside Venezuela are advised to reconsider all travel to the country over the immediate term due to the political unrest. Foreign nationals from countries that have recognized the opposition candidate are particularly at risk.
  5. Refrain from discussions with unfamiliar individuals on political matters on social media or in public due to the risk of arrest.
  6. MAX has strong capabilities on-ground in Venezuela, for support or evacuation. Please contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434.