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CARACAS, Venezuela—Many among Venezuela’s opposition and its U.S. backers figured President Nicolás Maduro’s regime would crumble quickly after Washington threw its support behind a plan designed to sap his military support and spur his exit. It hasn’t happened that way.
Three weeks after the head of the country’s national assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president, Mr. Maduro remains firmly in control, prompting some to call that plan into question.
“The people who devised it in Caracas and sold it here [in Washington], sold it with the promise that if Guaidó made a move and [South American countries] and the U.S. came in behind, the military would flip and Maduro would go,” said a former senior U.S. official. “They thought it was a 24-hour operation.”
Mr. Maduro, who polls show is deeply unpopular among Venezuelans, could face an uprising at any time. But the longer he hangs on to power, the greater the likelihood of a long stalemate, raising the risks of violent confrontation and a regional crisis as new U.S. economic sanctions deepen the country’s economic collapse.
“Everything is predicated on that assumption that this will be quick. But what is the Plan B?” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “What happens if sanctions last six months? It’s devastating. And you get more refugees from Venezuela across South America.”
President Trump, asked Wednesday if he had a Plan B if Mr. Maduro remained in power, responded: “I always have a Plan B, and C, and D, and E and F. I have great flexibility. I probably have more flexibility than any man who’s ever been in this office.”
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Meanwhile, an effort by Mr. Maduro’s foes to ship humanitarian aid from Colombia has been delayed repeatedly. And on Tuesday, thousands of soldiers lined up to sign a loyalty pledge to the government.
“We won’t tolerate…an intervention by an empire that is sharpening its claws because it wants our oil,” Maj. Gen. Jesús Sánchez Chourio, head of the army, said during the event, which was broadcast nationwide.
A big test for both sides looms on Feb. 23, when Mr. Guaidó and his allies say they will try to get U.S. food and medical supplies across the border from Colombia into Venezuela. Mr. Maduro has vowed to block it, and appears willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do so. On Tuesday, the government lined up dozens of convicts in orange jumpsuits from a nearby prison and vowed to use them to block the border.
The governor of one border state said he had armed militiamen standing by to use as sharpshooters against any opposition member who tried to cross with aid. Vice President Delcy Rodríguez even claimed the food aid was poisoned and would give ordinary Venezuelans cancer, without offering proof.
The risk for Mr. Maduro is clear: Blocking aid will win him no friends at home or abroad, and violent confrontation with opposition supporters could spur defections in the armed forces.
But there are risks for the Venezuelan opposition, too. International agencies including the Red Cross say they can’t help distribute the aid because it would be seen as taking sides in Venezuela’s political crisis. The opposition said it has signed up some 200,000 volunteers to help distribute aid. But even if they get supplies across the border, they might struggle to distribute it effectively to those most in need.
“It’s totally unclear how they’re going to do it,” said Wilfredo Cañizares, a Colombian activist at the country’s border with Venezuela. “I hope this doesn’t end in tragedy.”
Among the many voices urging Mr. Maduro to remain defiant are advisers from Cuba, his government’s closest ally, said Eduardo Gamarra, a political-science professor at Florida International University. “The government thinks they can wait this out,” he said.
Venezuela’s military has been the final arbiter of who stays in power throughout much of the country’s history. Mr. Maduro’s government has used carrots and sticks alike to ensure the most important commanders—those in battalions in Caracas and other key cities who command the best-trained troops—don’t defect to Mr. Guaidó.
With the help of intelligence agents from Cuba, his regime has stopped uprisings and rooted out conspirators, said Rocio San Miguel, a Venezuelan military analyst. She said more than 180 military men have been locked up in military stockades for so-called political crimes against the regime. Among those detained, she said, are three battalion commanders arrested in March 2018.
In a country struggling with food and medicine scarcities, the regime has worked to ensure that commanding generals, colonels, intelligence and counterintelligence chiefs share in the spoils of a government whose officials have grown rich operating gold mines, distributing food and getting a cut from oil sales, Ms. San Miguel said. Those officers have declared their loyalty and been vetted by Venezuela’s Cuban allies.
“You don’t get to the very top of the Venezuelan pyramid by chance,” said Ms. San Miguel. “These people are committed. They have received benefits from the revolution.”
Alejandro Arreaza, a Venezuelan economist at Barclays, says the most likely outcome is political change within the next six weeks, as pressure rises within Venezuela to act before U.S. sanctions push the crisis-hit economy further into trouble.
But if there is no political solution, he sees the future as bleak.
“Without a solution to this impasse within days, we believe the country could be on a path into a fully anarchic situation that, if not tackled rapidly, could compromise its economic capacity to recover,” he said in a note to clients on Tuesday.
Mr. Arreaza estimates Venezuela could lose 700,000 barrels a day of its current output of roughly 1.1 million barrels within the next four to five months. For a government that depends on oil exports for virtually all its revenue, it would be a calamity, upping the risks of social upheaval. Without a political transition this year, most economists estimate a fall of between a quarter and a third of Venezuela’s annual economic output, which has already fallen by half over the past six years.
“I am sure the U.S. can produce an economic collapse here,” said Luis Vicente León, a prominent Venezuelan pollster. “What I’m not sure about is whether the economic collapse can get Maduro out. Then what’s the option?”
As the economy crumbles, support for the opposition strategy and Mr. Guaidó could fall, too, Mr. León warns. “The people won’t ever like Maduro,” he said. “But there is a big risk that they won’t want the opposition either, and that they start blaming you for a strategy that makes me live worse off than before and still hasn’t knocked out Maduro.”
Sanctions succeed in removing dictatorships only about 30% of the time, according to Gary Hufbauer, an economist at the Petersen Institute for International Economics who has studied the past century of sanctions. Regimes in the Middle East, from Iraq to Iran to Syria, have proved difficult to dislodge through sanctions, and Cuba has famously withstood a U.S. embargo for half a century.
“More than anything else, sanctions eventually work, but not alone. You need to exert a whole heck of a lot of things and it needs to be combined with internal pressure,” said Mr. Gamarra. “This is going to be a waiting game.”
—José de Córdoba in Mexico City and Peter Nicholas in Washington contributed to this article.