After days of fresh protests and arrests in Venezuela, things took a decidedly surreal turn when the head of the national assembly, Juan Guaidó swore himself in as interim president on Wednesday, and the Trump administration promptly recognized him as the interim head of state.
The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime. Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela. https://t.co/WItWPiG9jK
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 23, 2019
The problem? The embattled — and increasingly unpopular — Nicolás Maduro is still president. Maduro responded to the U.S. support for Guaidó by ordering U.S. diplomats out of the country. The United States refused, saying that Maduro lacked such authority.
Since U.S. recognition of Guaidó as president on Wednesday, at least a dozen other countries, including Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, have followed suit, while others, including Mexico, Turkey, Cuba, and China, have not.
As of now, the Venezuelan military remains in support of Maduro, with the country’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino disavowing Guaidó’s claim to office in a tweet on Wednesday. Of course, things could change. And behind closed doors, there might be mounting pressure on Maduro to step down.
“Removing a dictator requires tremendous courage, particularly in a place like Venezuela, where the government has shown its willingness to repress peaceful protesters,” said Benjamin Gedan, senior adviser at the Wilson Center’s Latin American program, in an email to ThinkProgress.
Venezuelans, who for years have risked death and arrest in mobilizing to fight back for their disappearing civil liberties as well as government accountability, “deserve international support,” he added.
This U.S.-supported regime change is bound to be messy. For one thing, Maduro still has supporters in the country, who might not support a new regime propped up by foreign governments. And even those who don’t support Maduro might see Wednesday’s developments as an attack on Venezuela’s sovereignty.
J.J. Messner, executive director of the Fund for Peace, which produces the Fragile State Index, told ThinkProgress that while a peaceful transition is still the hope, the current conditions could create the risk of civil conflict, which may lead to more uncertainty.
“It’s difficult to predict where it will go, and there is every risk that it could slide in that direction [of a civil conflict],” said Messner.
Guaidó’s calculated risk
That Guaidó would be confident enough to declare himself president without worry of being immediately arrested is remarkable, as is the speed with which his attempted power grab was applauded by the United States.
Gedan, who was also the National Security Council’s South America director under the Obama administration, said that Guaidó knows what he’s getting into, adding that “his mentor, Leopoldo López, spent years as a political prisoner and remains under house arrest.”
Someone in Guaido’s position, said Messner, would not “[m]ake such a proclamation if they didn’t have some sense that wouldn’t have some level of recognition or support, whatever that might entail, from foreign governments.”
This could be interpreted as a regime change orchestrated, at least in part, by a foreign government, although Messner said the primary driver of regime change in the country is domestic.
“First of all, as we’ve seen on the Fragile States Index, Venezuela has been sliding very fast over the last few years on pretty much all indicators, it has been worsening very rapidly,” he said, adding that the nature of the protests have changed.
“Whereas before you might see more middle class, wealthier Venezuelans out on the streets protesting against the Maduro administration… now what you’re seeing is more working-class Venezuelans taking to the streets. And, don’t forget, that’s where the base of support for Maduro comes from.”
This, added Messner, could accelerate the collapse of the Maduro administration.
If the military withdraws its support from him, then he basically has to either step aside or go into exile.
“Maduro, Si! Trump, No!”
It’s important to note that Maduro’s presidency — especially his second term — has been a disaster.
“U.S. opposition to Maduro’s misrule is principled and appropriate, albeit bewilderingly inconsistent with U.S. policy elsewhere in the world,” said Gedan.
The May elections that kept him in office are not recognized as legitimate by many in the international community, and certainly not within Venezuela. Protests driven by charges of political and economic corruption have rocked the country for about four years, resulting in massive crackdowns, hundreds of deaths, arrests, sanctions and, ultimately, the exodus of some three million people from the country.
In addition to individual governments, the United Nations and human rights groups have decried the subversion of democracy in the country, as well as the assault on human rights.
U.S. interventions are generally viewed as disastrous (although Messner pointed to the invasion of Panama as a success, the United Nations condemned it as “a flagrant violation of international law”), and grassroots activists in the United States have started to hold demonstrations against President Donald Trump’s support for Guaidó.
“The Trump administration has zero credibility as a defender of democracy and human rights,” said Gedan, adding, “Indeed, the U.S. president appears to have special affection for strongmen, such as Rodrigo Duterte and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. That said, the White House is on the right side of the Venezuela conflict.”
Latin America, he said, “has seen far too many military coups d’état, and the United States has at times sided with individuals uncommitted to democratic norms.” Still, said Gedan, right now there are no “electoral options available” for those wishing to express their dissent against Maduro.
And this is precisely the awkward spot in which civil rights activists find themselves: To support Guaidó is to agree with Trump, whose foreign policies have generally been untouched by the principles of human rights and civil liberties (think of the administration’s strong ties with Saudi Arabia, for instance). To disavow Guaidó is to support Maduro, who is the man atop the pyramid of disaster that is Venezuela right now.
A Wednesday night protest outside the Venezuelan embassy in Georgetown included members from the ANSWER Coalition, Code Pink, and other organizations that, interestingly, not only chanted against intervention, but in support of Maduro.
“I think it’s up to the people of Venezuela. I can tell you lots of countries in Latin America and other places in the world where Human Rights Watch has criticized human rights abuses,” said Medea Benjamin, cofounder of Code Pink, who was protesting on Wednesday.
“Our job is to say that it’s not for the U.S. government to determine who is going to be the president of Venezuela,” she said.