It was a perfect metaphor to describe the government of President Nicolás Maduro. In a military parade designed to show him as a powerful commander in chief, Mr. Maduro was interrupted mid-speech by an explosion. Live state television immediately cut to a shot of the orderly formations of National Guardsmen facing the stage. But when a second explosion rang out, the National Guardsmen scattered and ran for cover. State television coverage broke to a triumphant cartoon image of a running stallion.
The first task of any autocrat is to look strong and invincible. But the Aug. 4 assassination attempt made Mr. Maduro looked weak and vulnerable. That an amateurish drone attack could get so close to the president shows the deterioration of Venezuela’s state apparatus at the highest levels. That the soldiers would break and scatter to save their own hides reveals the superficiality of the support that the president has around him.
What would have happened had the assassination attempt been successful? Without any viable opposition, it most likely would have empowered Chavista military loyalists to take charge and make Venezuela into a true military dictatorship. Or it could have begun an armed conflict between rival factions within Chavismo.
No one knows whether the Maduro regime will last decades or days. But this drone attack should be a warning to international stakeholders. To achieve an orderly, democratic and nonviolent solution to the Venezuelan crisis, international pressure must be complemented by constructive engagement of both the government and opposition.
Firmly in control of his party and government, and with the opposition in disarray, Mr. Maduro appears to be in a strong position. But the reality underneath is like a foundation of sand in a rainstorm. Inflation that could reach 1 million percent, declining oil production and defaulted loans leave an economy that will contract by double digits for the third year in a row. The Maduro government is not capable of paying its bills and has few friends to turn to.
Since mid-June, nurses have been on strike, protesting the salaries of less than a $1 per month. This week the government raised their wage to about $7, which still won’t go very far with the rapidly growing inflation. With a tone of irony, the nurses are demanding the same salaries as military officers. But even the highest-ranking colonel makes only around $50 a month. Mr. Maduro is at the point where he cannot pay public employees relevant salaries.
While many government and military officials have their hands in corruption schemes that provide them with ample rewards, they know that Mr. Maduro is running Chavismo, the political system built by former president Hugo Chávez, off a cliff. If they get to the point that they see their livelihoods at risk, they are not going to turn around and run like the National Guardsmen did on Saturday. They will walk forward and force Mr. Maduro himself off the stage.
There is considerable international pressure on the Maduro regime. Fourteen Latin American countries, the United States, Canada and the entire European Union have refused to recognize Mr. Maduro’s May 20 re-election. The United States, Canada, the European Union, Switzerland and Panama have all imposed sanctions of some sort. And initiatives by the United Nations Human Rights Council and review of accusations of crimes by the International Criminal Court all provide extraordinary pressure on the Maduro government. These measures are necessary, but are unlikely to lead to positive change by themselves.
Countries concerned about Venezuela need to match their pressure with engagement. It is important that the “Lima Group” of 14 nations has emerged to pressure Venezuela. But there also needs to be a “group of friends” that can engage the Maduro government and facilitate a transition. Such diplomacy should not be seen as an alternative to pressure, but as a complement running parallel to it. In the 1980s the Contadora Group of foreign ministers from Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela was key to the eventual emergence of a peace plan, putting an end to the wars in Central America.
The governments of Uruguay, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic and the new administration in Mexico could play such a role, perhaps facilitated by the United Nations or a European country with experience in peace negotiations. Such engagement should include discussion of mechanisms of transitional justice that could ensure officials they can change course without being the object of persecution.
International engagement does not need to come from the very top, or be held in the public eye. Initiatives such as the Boston Group, which facilitates contact between United States lawmakers and Venezuelan officials, can work directly without recognition. Indeed, it was through this mechanism that Senator Bob Corker secured the release of a United States citizen from a Venezuelan jail, just days after Mr. Maduro’s re-election.
The United States and other countries also need to stop facilitating the extremist voices of Venezuelan politicians in exile — who, after all, do not suffer the consequences of their unrealistic schemes — and prioritize the many politicians still in Venezuela. International allies need to make their support contingent upon unity among opposition leaders. As others have noted, the differences between politicians like María Corina Machado and the former presidential candidate Henri Falcón are far from insurmountable.
The government’s crass manipulation and outright fraud in elections over the past two years have weakened the hand of opposition moderates and strengthened the long-term message of radicals: “you don’t remove dictators with votes.” But this idea is historically inaccurate. Pressure leading to a pact leading to a vote is the classic way to overcome authoritarian rule. It was through a plebiscite that the Chilean opposition defeated the dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988. A year later, the Solidarity movement in Poland accepted a limited vote and stunned the government by sweeping the election, leading to its demise. And it was through negotiations, and a vote, that South Africa overcame apartheid.
In none of these cases did dictators simply roll over and give up after a weekend of dialogue. Nor did they play fair. In each case it was through months and years of hardball politics and arduous negotiations that democratic challengers were able to outsmart and outmaneuver authoritarian governments.
David Smilde is a professor of sociology at Tulane University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.