Geopolitics has two speeds.
The first is glacial. The sort of huge, multi-generational trends that I spend most of my time studying and charting don’t shift easily or quickly. Whether the issue is pushing an army over a mountain range, or attempting to encourage a country full of people to have more children, or finding a substitute for gasoline, change – or at least change that is big – comes slow.
This is part of the power of geopolitics: if the rules change only rarely, it is fairly straightforward to draw trends deep into the future.
Of course, there is that other speed. The forces of geography may be unstoppable and inevitable, but that does not necessarily make their destined results imminent. Political forces don’t simply resist them doggedly, but often pathologically. For a solid example, consider the Cold War: the Soviet economy was never much more than an organized mess, yet from the time Soviet leadership realized it was all hopeless in the early 1970s, it still took another two decades for it all to go to pot. Only a fool would assert the Soviets did nothing of relevance during that time.
Yet leaders resist forces geopolitical at their risk. Pressure builds until the inevitable release. The greater the delay, the greater the pressure, the greater the subsequent explosion. In such moments truly epic forces are unleashed all at once: the Berlin Wall’s fall, the Asian Financial Crisis, the September 11 attacks, the release of Avengers: Endgame.
At such moments, the speed accelerates to lightning and people in my line of work have a heyday. It’s professional vindication, personal validation, and a helluva lot of excitement all at once. We all look for these moments.
Last week I saw something in Venezuela that I knew had to happen eventually. After two decades of mismanagement well past the merely criminal, it appeared the socialist government of Venezuela had finally collapsed under its own incompetence. Forces geopolitical, I thought, had finally gotten their revenge.
Part I and Part II of this series were, to be blunt, my wallowing in the moment.
Aaaaand I jumped the gun.
Please take this newsletter for what it is: part mea culpa, part explanation, and part a look forward at what it means that Venezuelan strongman-president Nicholas Maduro is not quite done making history.
First and most obviously, Maduro is still large and in charge. Initial reports that he had fled the country or slipped in the shower and fell on some bullets were wildly untrue. The Venezuelan military – the only faction in Venezuela that really matters as concerns Maduro’s survivability – remains more-or-less unified and in support of their boss.
Nor has the Venezuelan opposition made meaningful progress. Consolidation around self-declared interim president Juan Guaido appears no more coherent than any of the other failed opposition efforts to close ranks. The only item of substance that has changed from the past 20 years of Chavez-Maduro rule is that nearly every country in the Western Hemisphere has now called for Maduro to step down. There is zero indication that any of these countries, however, is willing to do much more than mouth the words. A military invasion is firmly off the table (and with the Venezuelan capital of Caracas not being a coastal city, any such effort would be, in a word, complicated).
Second, there is one power that is doing a bit more than voice its concerns. Since that power is the United States, best to pay attention. On Jan 28 the Americans levied blanket sanctions on the Venezuelan state oil firm, PDVSA. While the United States will still allow Venezuela to sell crude to American entities, Washington will not allow any cash from the sales to flow back to Caracas. In addition, the Americans froze the assets of Citgo – a PDVSA subsidiary in the United States that’s primarily a refiner.