Venezuela on the Brink

Asamblea Nacional de Venezuela

For the famously fractious Venezuelan political opposition, these have been weeks marked by uncharacteristic unity and strategic thinking. While achieving their ultimate goal—the ouster of Nicolás Maduro and restoration of democracy—remains uncertain, the opposition has strengthened to a point where transition seems possible, if by no means certain. 

For the past several months, Venezuelan opposition figures have focused anyone who would listen on the date of January 10, 2019. That day, they argued, would mark the start of a new presidential term for Maduro, a term obtained via fraudulent elections, therefore rendering Maduro an “usurper” of the presidency. The argument was legally sound, but in a world where questionable electoral processes seldom hinder an incumbent’s ability to assume and exercise power—witness, most recently, Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection in Honduras despite the OAS’ refusal to certify the result—it appeared unlikely that January 10 would represent a “before and after” moment for Venezuela’s strongman.

To the opposition’s credit, however, it succeeded in making January 10 meaningful, most importantly by convincing key members of the international community to withhold recognition of Maduro. At the OAS, a majority of countries—including the United States and most members of the Lima Group—voted not to recognize Maduro as president. 

Having achieved a blow—notable but hardly fatal—to Maduro’s legitimacy, the opposition faced a much more challenging task: put forward a viable alternative. Like the Chilean democrats who defeated Pinochet with the hopeful slogan “La alegría ya viene,” the Venezuelan opposition understood that mobilizing their countrymen for change would require giving them something to believe in, not just something to rail against.

Enter Juan Guaidó, a virtually unknown, 35-year old member of the National Assembly. Guaidó’s youth and relative anonymity distinguished him from the politics of the country’s pre-chavista past as well as the rotating cast of familiar, infighting opposition leaders of recent years. Guaidó offered not just a fresh face but a fresh message of democratic restoration without recrimination. Shortly after assuming the presidency of the National Assembly, he secured passage of an amnesty law—a signal to the armed forces that his would be a transition without vengeance. He delivered conciliatory messages to disenchanted chavistas and members of the military. He built his legitimacy quickly with rallies around the country and phone calls with foreign leaders.

When Venezuelan intelligence detained then quickly released Guaidó in a remarkable public display of internal divisions within the Maduro regime, it became clear the opposition’s strategy was working. Emboldened, it raised the ante, convening a high stakes march on January 23—a renewed attempt to mobilize Venezuelans en masse for the first time since 2017 protests were crushed by the government. Having succeeded in filling the streets of Caracas with supporters, Guaidó took his boldest step yet, invoking Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution and swearing himself in as interim president of Venezuela.

Did Guaidó overreach? Initial indications suggested not. The regime did not arrest him. Regional heavyweights Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, and the United States recognized him as president. The OAS announced it would accredit his newly appointed ambassador. And the US defied Maduro’s expulsion of its diplomats, choosing to follow instead Guaidó’s order that they be permitted to stay. Nevertheless, the morning after brought a bucket of cold water: the Minister of Defense and military high command went on national television to publicly affirm their loyalty to Maduro and accuse Guaidó of orchestrating a coup. Hope of a speedy and relatively nonviolent transition appeared to be dashed, at least for the moment.

By exercising whatever levers of power he has at his disposal, Guaidó will now aim to transform a symbolic act—taking the oath of office—into an ever-more-palpable reality. Watching carefully are the Venezuelan armed forces, which hold the balance of power in the country. The opposition calculates that by demonstrating strength, constitutional legitimacy, and popular support—and by lowering the exit costs for disenchanted loyalists—it can convince the military to turn on Maduro. It is a risky and courageous gambit, but one the opposition had little option but to undertake, and one it has executed skillfully thus far.

For the international community, the calculus is more complex. Certainly, the defense of democracy and human rights augur in favor of fully endorsing Guaidó’s efforts to shepherd a transition to free and fair elections. So too does national self-interest: as Venezuela’s economic self-destruction and humanitarian crisis deepen, the country’s neighbors are buckling under the strain of millions of migrants and refugees. The countries that recognized Guaidó as president on January 23 surely reasoned, not illogically, that only by treating his assumption of power as a fait accompli could they provide him the strength to render it so.

The risk, of course, is that for the time being Nicolás Maduro continues to govern Venezuela. The decision to recognize an alternative leader is consequential and not easily reversed. It implies an almost inevitable escalation, in this case within a combustible context where President Trump has openly mused about the use of force. And if Maduro does not fall, the options for dealing with him will be limited by the need to sustain an alternative reality.

When then-US President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad should step down, he had both democratic principle and the seemingly irrevocable momentum of the Arab Spring on his side. But Assad unleashed a brutal crackdown on his people and reasserted his shaky hold on power. In time, Obama’s demand came to seem precipitous, and US policymakers were boxed in by pressure to produce the reality the president had anticipated. In fact, Obama had resisted calling for Assad’s ouster for several months precisely because he was conscious of this risk.  

In backing Guaidó’s claim to Venezuela’s interim presidency, leaders from Washington to Buenos Aires are acting in defense of democracy, but they are also gambling that Maduro is not Assad. Whether their calculation is based on hope, hunch, or actionable intelligence regarding the posture of the Venezuelan armed forces remains unclear. The crucial days and weeks ahead will determine if their bold bet pays off. 

This article was originally published in Spanish for La Nación