U.S. intelligence analysts are increasingly convinced that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is likely to be pushed aside by members of his own socialist movement before finishing his term.
Senior American intelligence officials said Friday that as Venezuela's economy spins out of control, Maduro's grip on power is more fragile. They briefed reporters on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss their assessments by name.
Since December, when the opposition won legislative elections by a landslide, the country has been wracked by growing political confrontation at a time of triple-digit inflation, widespread food shortages and almost daily hours-long blackouts across much of the nation.
In such a combustible environment, the circumstances under which Maduro could be forced to leave office before his six-year term ends in 2019 are varied, according to the officials. One described it as being able to hear the ice cracking without knowing where the floor will collapse.
But the analysis, based on intelligence they did not share, points to a period of potentially violent political turmoil that will have consequences for international bondholders, oil markets and Venezuela's neighbors, especially Colombia.
The officials said the main concern for the Obama administration is that the deep political divisions and mounting economic hardships could trigger mayhem of the sort that Caracas experienced in 1989, when at least 300 people were killed during riots, looting and clashes with police against the backdrop of an economic crisis.
The officials said they've seen no evidence a military coup is in the works and say it would be unlikely to succeed, but they cautioned that nobody envisioned in 1992 that an unknown junior officer named Hugo Chavez would lead a barracks uprising — an event that made him famous and eventually led to his election as president.
The most likely scenario, they said, would be a sort of "palace coup," probably in the form of a recall vote next year that would draw support from socialists concerned Maduro is wrecking Chavez's legacy of reducing poverty.
To be sure, there's been no outward sign of friction within the government and Venezuelan officials have repeatedly swatted down speculation about internal power battles that has been common since Chavez died in 2013. Maduro frequently accuses the U.S. of working with the opposition to sow dissent where none exists.
The officials said their analysis indicates authorities are trying to delay — but possibly not block — a recall referendum against Maduro by dragging out the process of validating millions of signatures of Venezuelans seeking the president's ouster. To order new elections, the recall vote must be held this year. If it is held in 2017, Maduro's vice president would finish out his term, removing the opposition's chance to compete for power.
The movement founded by Chavez has proven resilient in the face of doomsday predictions in the past. The officials said Maduro could buy more breathing room if oil prices rebound or China, the country's biggest creditor, makes another big loan.
But they said current crisis threatens irreparable damage to its economy.
For example, with the recent decision by oil providers Schlumberger and Halliburton to reduce operations in Venezuela, oil production, which accounts for 96 percent of export earnings, could fall this year below 2 million barrels per day for the first time in more than two decades.