Maduro Digs In. It’s an Old Strategy, but It May Work.
In his bid to maintain power over a crumbling nation, President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has returned to a strategy that has served him well in the past: Hold tight and wait out his opponents.
It’s what the president did in 2014, when the opposition barricaded streets to try to topple him. He used the same strategy three years later when his effort to nullify the country’s opposition-controlled legislature triggered protests that petered out after four months.
And now, as the opposition’s latest attempt to end his presidency drags into its third month, Mr. Maduro appears to be digging in once again — weathering sanctions on the country’s oil industry, isolation from more than 50 countries, a parallel government set up to challenge him, a steady trickle of military desertions and a days-long national power outage unlike any the country had seen.
At the same time, the United States, which has been pushing to oust Mr. Maduro, gambled on a strategy of sanctions and other pressure that it thought would work quickly, but hasn’t.
This week, Mr. Maduro was even taking the offensive.
On Thursday, Venezuelan intelligence agents stormed the home of Roberto Marrero, the chief of staff of the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, taking him into custody on charges of being part of a terrorist cell.
Mr. Marrero hasn’t been seen since.
“The government is doing everything it can to force a sense of exasperation with Guaidó and force people to lose faith in him,” said Geoff Ramsey, assistant director for Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.
“The surge of support for Guaidó came within weeks,” he continued. “They know it can vanish just as quickly.”
Since Mr. Guaidó returned to Venezuela on March 4, the two men, who both claim to be the country’s rightful leader, seem to be playing a kind of waiting game.
At one point, it seemed as if Mr. Guaidó had the upper hand; the number of countries recognizing him over Mr. Maduro as the country’s rightful president was growing, and the opposition said it was courting the country’s military to take its side.
But many believe Mr. Guaidó’s momentum has slowed.
Around Caracas, Mr. Guaidó’s message seems to be hitting a wall among many whose main concern is finding food and water amid the country’s continuing economic crisis.
“Each time they hold another march, there’s no transportation and I have to pay for a taxi or a motorcycle to get to work — I lose,” said Gabriel Rondón, a 25-year-old in the El Hatillo neighborhood, who has a job in a struggling cafe. “In the barrios, no one knows Guaidó. I know his name, that’s about it.”
Another problem for Mr. Guaidó is the strategy of his chief patron, the United States.
The Trump Administration gambled that a barrage of sanctions in January and February would undermine Mr. Maduro so quickly that his armed forces would turn on him and install Mr. Guaidó as president.
In addition to the January oil sanctions, the United States targeted governors, generals, intelligence agency heads, the state oil company, a Russian bank partly owned by Venezuela, and canceled visas for dozens of friends and family members of Mr. Maduro. On Friday, the United States issued new sanctions targeting the country’s development bank and other institutions it owns.
But by using all of its ammunition at once to aid Mr. Guaidó, the United States has little leverage against Mr. Maduro now that the conflict is dragging on.
“Maduro now realizes the U.S. has played all its big cards and he’s started to look into a medium-term strategy,” said Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University who studies the region.
While the economic sanctions will continue to cripple Venezuela’s crumbling economy, Mr. Maduro appears is trying to evade them.
While United States imports of Venezuelan oil fell to zero this week, according to government statistics, Mr. Maduro has turning to other countries to buy the country’s oil, even if at cheaper rates.
Mr. Maduro, so far, has also been able to hold onto his chief diplomatic patrons, China and Russia, both of whom are suspicious of United States intentions in the region and are owed billions in debt from Mr. Maduro, who pays much of it with barrels of oil.
A recent national blackout this month provided what may be a road map for how Mr. Maduro can deflect criticism in the coming months as the situation in his country deteriorates.
The state power company’s union said a fire had caused the outage. But Mr. Maduro returned to a familiar trope: A cyberattack, organized from Houston and Chicago, was responsible for the outage, he said.
His government meanwhile has used the hawkish statements of Mr. Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, to back up Mr. Maduro’s claim that the United States is behind a plot to overthrow him on state-controlled media where Mr. Guaidó has no say in coverage.
The arrest of Mr. Marrero, Mr. Guaidó’s chief of staff, sent a particular chill through the opposition and raised the question of what comes next.
Mr. Marrero was arrested in a pre-dawn raid on his home in which Néstor Reverol, the country’s interior minister, said he was “caught with war weapons.” Opposition officials said the arms were planted by the government.
“This shows the dictatorship doesn’t care what the international community thinks,” said Delsa Solórzano, an opposition lawmaker who is close to Mr. Guaidó.
She said it was particularly troubling that the arrest came as former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, continues to investigate abuses by Mr. Maduro’s government.
Mr. Maduro tried to impress a sense of normalcy this week in Venezuela, releasing a cellphone video of himself driving in the state of Aragua, greeting a crowd of supporters from behind the wheel.
It was part of an effort to promote Venezuela’s automobile industry, which once served General Motors and Ford, but has been largely decimated in the economic collapse.
Mr. Maduro announced the relaunch of a bus called the Yutong, manufactured with the help of Chinese investment.
“Together we can reach the big goals of the homeland!” Mr. Maduro wrote on Twitter.