Over 3 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015. Could Nicolás Maduro soon be one of them?
The embattled dictator has held on despite increasing international pressure and domestic instability. But that hasn’t stopped speculation over whether Maduro, 56, might accept some kind of deal to spend his golden years away from the uncertainty that awaits him in Venezuela. There are reports Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, has asked her husband to prepare a Plan B if a departure becomes necessary. John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, even tweeted his wish for Maduro to retire to a “nice beach somewhere far from Venezuela.”
Exile to another country is a less common fate for dictators than it used to be. Improved cooperation on international law has made harboring accused human rights abusers riskier than it was 30 years ago, as Mac Margolis pointed out in Bloomberg.
But if he tries to leave, Maduro could have options, from allies willing to disregard his record of human rights abuse to international actors who could take him in hopes of diffusing tensions in the region. Below, a menu of options for exile, from least to most likely.
Spain says the U.S. has inquired whether it might receive one or more of Maduro’s ministers should his regime dissolve. But Maduro’s relations with Spain have been fraught. He insulted Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez after his government recognized Juan Guaidó as president. Further, right-wing parties could also clinch a parliamentary majority in April’s elections, another roadblock to Maduro moving to Spain. With 275,000 Venezuelans now living in Spain, it also doesn’t seem likely that Maduro would be able to eat a meal out in peace.
8. Somewhere in the Caribbean
Several beneficiaries of Petrocaribe, Hugo Chávez’s oil diplomacy program in the Caribbean, became staunch allies of him and his successor Maduro. A lack of support among Caribbean nations sunk an OAS resolution in 2017 that would have condemned Maduro’s formation of a parallel legislature. Trinidad and Tobago, which signed a deal to buy liquid natural gas from Venezuela in August, is one of the countries still supporting Maduro’s presidency. Perhaps the country would take in Maduro in exchange for some guarantees its deal would be upheld by whatever government comes after him in Venezuela.
If Maduro leaves Venezuela, it will probably be somewhere where he can avoid international prosecution. The International Criminal Court is investigating human rights abuses in Venezuela under his rule, but China isn’t a member. Its distance from Venezuela and the U.S.—geographically and otherwise—could provide Maduro some cover. But significant cultural differences make China seem like a far-fetched choice by Maduro.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is a close ally of Maduro, but taking sanctuary in Nicaragua would entail some risk. Ortega’s hold on power would certainly be weakened if Maduro were to fall, ultimately putting his long-term security there in question.
Mexico’s policy toward Venezuela has long been wrapped up in domestic politics, and there isn’t an obvious reason Mexicans would want Maduro in their country. Further, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador isn’t likely to accept Maduro without some buy-in from the United States. But playing a peacemaking role could appeal to López Obrador, who received criticism for inviting Maduro to his inauguration late last year. As Bloomberg notes, Mexico has a history of offering asylum to foreign leaders, including the Soviet Marxist Leon Trotsky. Of course, Trotsky’s gruesome fate in Mexico may not exactly encourage Maduro to follow in his footsteps.
Seven exiled dictators relocated to Russia between 1946 and 2012, second only to the U.S. and tied with the United Kingdom. Could Maduro add to that tally? Russia has become a lender of last resort to his regime and recognizes Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Maduro feels similarly comfortable with Russian President Vladimir Putin. On March 1, he ordered the relocation of state-oil firm PDVSA’s European headquarters from Lisbon to Moscow, a move his vice president attributed to greater assurance that Russia would protect PDVSA’s assets. Still, it’s not clear if either actor would ultimately be interested in an arrangement. Given Venezuela’s debts to Russia, Moscow has financial incentives for Maduro to stay and fight. And for Maduro? Well, Russia may simply be too cold.
In the fallout of the attempted coup in 2016 coup, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan strengthened ties with Maduro, who loves Turkish TV and has visited the country four times in two years. Erdogan called Maduro his “brother” when reiterating his support for Maduro’s presidency in January. Like China, Turkey isn’t a member of the ICC. There is also speculation that members of chavismo’s newly rich boliborguesía have been ramping up business deals with Turkey in preparation for a life there after Maduro. For Turkey, taking in a fleeing Maduro could also be a way to spite the U.S. for not extraditing Fethullah Gülen, the Muslim cleric and critic of Erdogan who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. since 1999. Erdogan blames Gülen for organizing the coup attempt.
2. Somewhere in Venezuela
Guaidó and his team have hinted that amnesty for Maduro is something they might consider. Of course, Guaidó currently does not have power, so Maduro would have to make amnesty a precondition for his exit—something departing regimes have done elsewhere in the region. Still, unless he remains in power, Maduro may never feel safe in Venezuela, with or without amnesty.
The government that has perhaps most shaped Maduro’s regime ideologically and strategically could also have a say in its end game. Maduro has a long personal history in Cuba. As a 24-year-old in 1986, he spent a year in Havana studying politics alongside communists from around Latin America, and his devotion to Fidel Castro’s revolution allegedly helped him secure the late leader’s blessing as Chávez’s successor. There’s still risk for Maduro. At 87, former president Raúl Castro won’t be around much longer to guarantee Maduro’s protection. But it may be his best bet.
“I think he would be very happy there,” Colombian President Iván Duque recently told the Washington Post. “He has a lot of friends there.”
O’Boyle is a senior editor at AQ. Follow him on Twitter @BrenOBoyle.