Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Which President Will Take Hold as Venezuela’s Leader?

Guaidó // File Photo: Venezuelan National Assembly. Guaidó // File Photo: Venezuelan National Assembly.

More than a dozen countries have rejected Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro as the country’s president since he was sworn in for a second term this month, instead recognizing Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who on Jan. 23 proclaimed himself interim president of the country while free and fair elections are organized. Who is Guaidó, and does he have a legitimate claim to the presidency? What sorts of implications does a dual government scenario have for the country? How likely is it that Venezuela will hold elections in the near future and, if arranged, is the Venezuelan opposition unified enough to win?

Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica and co-chair of the Inter American Dialogue’s Board of Directors: “Juan Guaidó burst onto the stage of Venezuela’s dramatic politics in the most surprising way and when he was most needed. His very assumption as president of the National Assembly was accidental and by default. The position belonged to his party, Voluntad Popular, by process of rotation, and the party’s main leaders are imprisoned or in exile. Only five days after his appointment, Maduro was sworn in as president for a second term after being re-elected in a vote plagued by irregularities. With Maduro’s legitimacy in question, the constitutional mechanism that establishes the head of the National Assembly as the country’s interim president in the absence of a president was put in motion. But Guaidó’s swearing-in was more than just a simple application of the Constitution—it was also the result of a dizzying process of popular support forged after his visits to several town councils, which projected him as a reliable politician, with a simple and familiar speech, before a people thirsty for hope and leadership. Time is passing quickly, in favor of Guaidó and against Maduro. In addition to the recognition of several countries’ governments, other signs weigh on the worn-out madurista regime, among them the actions of bondholders against the regime and the impediment to withdrawing gold deposits from the Bank of England, as well as the Inter-American Development Bank’s support for Guaidó. The stars have never aligned in favor of a transition in Venezuela as they have today: an alert and active international community, a unified political opposition and a leader that has been able to re-sow hope in his people. However, a defining ingredient is missing: the armed forces, on which the survival of the Nicolás Maduro regime entirely depends today.”

Charles Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta: “Nicolás Maduro’s fraudulent election last May and his Potemkin village inauguration provided the opportunity for the international democratic community to try to restore democracy in Venezuela. National Assembly President Juan Guaidó is a new face—young, relatively unknown and free of the internecine battles of the opposition. Internationally, the Lima Group has been working for months to bring about change in Venezuela. OAS Secretary General Almagro is a fierce advocate for democracy. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland played a key role behind the scenes. Brazil and Colombia elected presidents more willing to take action against Maduro. The Europeans are fed up with Maduro, both for the humanitarian crisis and for his evolution from elected autocrat to outright dictator. The European Union, Spain, Germany, France and the United Kingdom will withdraw recognition from the Maduro regime if elections aren’t called this week. The Trump administration is more willing to lead an effort to resolve the crisis in Venezuela than its predecessor. AMLO’s election in Mexico had the opposite effect, and Mexico is conspicuous by its absence. Conversely, authoritarian governments around the world support Maduro. Russia and China blocked U.N. Security Council action against the Venezuelan government. Maduro has dug in and will remain defiant so long as the military backs him. So far, the military high command is firm in its support. Nonetheless, Maduro must be looking over his shoulder. The economy is collapsing, and the families of junior officers and enlisted troops are suffering like other Venezuelans. Maduro spent Sunday haranguing the troops and appealing to their patriotism. There’s a hint that Maduro just might blink. He backed off his demand that U.S. diplomats depart the country in 72 hours. Perhaps the military or the Cubans advised him to do so. One hopes there is contact off-line between the United States and Maduro, perhaps through an intermediary. Maduro must recognize that his internal support is quickly eroding. Russia lacks the ability, and China lacks the will to prop up the Venezuelan economy. It’s time for Maduro to consider his options.”

Eva Golinger, attorney, author and former advisor to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez:“The situation in Venezuela is very volatile and unpredictable. While the opposition made a bold move, encouraged and supported by the United States, Guaidó’s proclamation sets a dangerous precedent of a parallel state within a state. Maduro has shown no sign of weakening, and though there was ambiguity in the armed forces during the first 24 hours after Guaidó proclaimed himself ‘interim president,’ they since have come out backing Maduro and rejecting any unconstitutional attempt to oust him or violate Venezuela’s sovereignty. The world is clearly divided. It’s become a geopolitical battlefield. The West mainly supports the opposition, with Trump as its biggest cheerleader. Russia, China, Iran, South Africa, Turkey, Syria, Bolivia, Cuba and some of the Caribbean, among others, support Maduro. Most countries wish for a peaceful solution to Venezuela’s conflict, through dialogue and negotiation and a path to a free and fair electoral process. The Trump administration, by naming Elliott Abrams—notoriously known for his unsavory role in the ‘dirty wars’ in Central America during the 1980s—appears on the brink of military action. Trump has not kept his desire for possible military force in Venezuela a secret. This prospect only rallies Maduro’s hardcore anti-imperialist support base and the military and makes the possibility of a nonviolent way out of this crisis unlikely. It’s a legally and politically risky move to establish a ‘dual government,’ one with power domestically, and one supported internationally. It also makes any thought of free and fair elections nearly impossible. If Maduro continues to dig in deeper, Trump’s threat of military force will probably come to fruition, spiraling Venezuela and the region into further crisis.”

Luis Vicente León, president of Datanálisis in Caracas: “The likelihood of a transition depends on, first, maximizing the cost of repression, and second, minimizing the cost of exit. Until now, the cost of maintaining Maduro has risen substantially. That is a positive change. The international community is exercising important pressure. However, the key lies inside the country. There has been a loss of chavista mobilization, and the activation of the opposition, revived by Guaidó’s symbolic leadership, generates hope, but mobilization is intermittent and has become expectant of international actions. Moreover, we must look at the damage-control strategies of the revolution. It’s clear they no longer need much money to survive. The needs of a primitive country are reduced, and import agreements with Russia, Turkey, India and Mexico will help mitigate, albeit partially, the impact of sanctions. Finally, the reduction of exit costs is key. If those who defect feel protected, there could be an implosion. The amnesty law goes in that direction, but the forgiveness proposals are weak if they don’t successfully generate individual confidence. That is complicated as the debate against forgiveness begins, restricting the crimes susceptible to amnesty and keeping the risk alive for would-be defectors. The opposition has gotten further than at any other moment. Maduro has partially lost internal control. The international community is active and pressuring. Chavismo is demobilized, and the crisis raises the risks of protest. But in a conflict of powers, he who has kinetic, executable force wins—and it all goes back to the military and its possible defection, a black box subject to many hypotheses, but with little real information.”

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