Venezuelan Opposition Leader Declares Himself President, With Trump Backing

National Assembly President Juan Guaidó promptly won the support of the U.S. and other countries. But will the military throw its weight behind him or Nicolás Maduro?

Venezuelan National Assembly head Juan Guaidó declares himself the country's acting president in Caracas on Jan. 23. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan National Assembly head Juan Guaidó declares himself the country's acting president in Caracas on Jan. 23. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump formally recognized Juan Guaidó, the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s interim president on Wednesday, just minutes after the young lawmaker took an informal oath of office declaring himself the country’s leader before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands in Caracas during nationwide demonstrations meant to challenge the ruling regime.

Other countries followed the United States’ lead: By Wednesday afternoon, within hours of Trump’s announcement, Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Argentina, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Canada all publicly backed Guaidó, in what has become a momentous challenge to nominal Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was appointing a veteran diplomat of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, Elliott Abrams, to lead the Trump administration’s response to the unfolding crisis. Pompeo heads to New York on Saturday to attend a special meeting at the United Nations on Venezuela.

Now Maduro’s fate still hangs in the balance, just under two weeks after he was sworn in for a second term. His re-election last year was widely viewed as illegitimate by the international community and Venezuelan opposition, with low turnout and accusations of massive voting irregularities.

Guaidó, elected to head the opposition-controlled legislative body earlier this month, invoked an article in the Venezuelan Constitution to declare Maduro “illegitimate” and the presidency vacant. He called Maduro, the onetime bus driver and acolyte of former Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, an “usurper.”

Ultimately, Maduro’s fate in the coming days could hinge on the military, according to Jason Marczak, an expert on Latin America with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

He said while Maduro has top-ranking military officers in his pocket, lower-ranking soldiers are struggling under the economic woes. Guaidó has made a point to try to lure soldiers—some of whom rebelled earlier this week—from the regime with promises of amnesty and reconciliation.

“What this will come down is whether the momentum being created today creates the necessary fissures in the military so that Maduro loses that critical base of support,” Marczak said.

The country’s top military brass haven’t appeared to buckle under international pressure so far, indicating they are still fully supporting Maduro.

Trump, in a statement released on Wednesday, declared: “In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant.” Trump added: “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.”

The move follows a steady drumbeat of public signals on the issue from other top U.S. officials and lawmakers, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Pompeo, and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. All condemned Maduro’s regime in statements and social media posts in recent days, saying that the Guaidó-led National Assembly is Venezuela’s only legitimate government.

That echoed a wave of international condemnation for Maduro’s continuance in office. Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States, repeatedly denounced Maduro as an “usurper” and on Wednesday backed Guaidó to take over the presidency on an interim basis.

The leadership challenge comes as Venezuela’s once divided and cowed opposition has found new life under the charismatic, 35-year-old Guaidó. On Jan. 23, the anniversary of the overthrow of a previous military dictatorship in Venezuela, hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the country to call for an end to Maduro’s regime, which has sent the once prosperous country into an economic tailspin with hyperinflation, food shortages, and disease outbreaks. Since the start of Venezuela’s so-called Bolivarian Revolution, oil production—the country’s main source of revenue—has collapsed due to corruption and mismanagement, destroying the economy.

The economic decline and political strife have sparked a mass exodus, as 3 million people—over 8 percent of the country’s population—have fled the country, according to U.N. figures from November 2018. Over 1 million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have fled to neighboring Colombia.

Exactly what recognition of Guaidó by the United States and other countries means is unclear in practical terms. In an immediate response, Maduro reportedly declared he was severing diplomatic ties between the United States and Venezuela, and he gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

That directive has put U.S. diplomats in a potentially dangerous limbo. As the 72-hour deadline approaches, the State Department ordered all nonessential personnel to leave the country. Pompeo said in remarks on Friday that U.S. diplomats would stay in the country and added that the safety and security of the remaining diplomats was of the highest priority to him and Trump.

Abrams, the new administration lead on the Venezuela crisis, will accompany Pompeo to New York for meetings at the U.N. over the weekend. Abrams served as a senior national security aide to President George W. Bush and is a prominent thinker in neoconservative foreign-policy circles. After serving at the State Department during the Reagan administration, Abrams pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress on secret efforts to support Nicaraguan rebels during the Iran-Contra scandal.

Guaidó’s move could also lead to massive confusion for multinational firms, especially energy companies, which will be unsure who they have to deal with in the Venezuelan government for purchases, production contracts, and the like. Having two politicians who see themselves as the sole legitimate president also promises to create dilemmas for Venezuelan officials in the military, intelligence services, and other parts of the government.

The challenge for Guaidó and the rest of the opposition now will be to chart a path to a democratic transition against a brutal dictatorship that has cheated in elections, stacked the courts, jailed political opponents, and repeatedly used force to crush opposition. Guaidó and the National Assembly have promised military officials an amnesty from prosecution if they break with Maduro’s government, potentially offering a path to ending two decades of communist rule in Venezuela. Some experts worry that Maduro and his inner circle could try to go down fighting, potentially seeking to arrest Guaidó and further disrupt any organized opposition.

“The regime is going to show force, and it’s been successful at intimidating the opposition and instilling fear,” said Michael Shifter, the president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Under both Chávez and Maduro, they haven’t been good at governing, but they’ve been very good at dividing the opposition—that is the one thing they’ve done consistently well.”

But Shifter warned that expectations of a quick end to the Maduro government could be misplaced without a carefully mapped-out plan to reconcile deeply antagonistic factions in a divided country.

“In Washington, there is this scenario that all of this is going to end up in a transitional government and that the regime will somehow collapse. I think there has to be a bridge to get from one side of the river to the other; they’re making a leap that is not entirely clear,” he said.

Officials in Washington, who have consistently taken a hard line on leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela even as they cozy up to authoritarian regimes elsewhere, have ratcheted up the pressure on Maduro’s government with a wave of targeted sanctions on Venezuelan government officials and companies since Trump took office. Many in Washington see additional economic pressure as a way to finish off a tottering Maduro.

“The thinking in D.C. is, Maduro is on the ropes; one final punch and he’s out,” Shifter said.

For almost a year, Trump administration officials have mulled another nuclear option to oust Maduro by slapping sanctions on Venezuela’s economic lifeblood: its oil exports. Such a measure would starve the regime of revenue but greatly increase the suffering of regular people. A senior administration official told reporters in a phone call on Wednesday that if Maduro responds to Guaidó’s announcement with violence or targets any National Assembly members, “all options are on the table for the United States.”

“Frankly, on our sanctions, we’ve barely scratched the surface,” the official said.

One concern with sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports: The United States is a big customer. Refineries on the Gulf Coast in particular buy a lot of heavy Venezuelan crude to turn it into gasoline and other products. A ban on Venezuelan oil would cause headaches for U.S. refiners and potentially jack up prices at the pump, just as Trump’s fears of rising gas prices had seemed to ease.

The blunt hammer of oil sanctions might be effective or might be counterproductive for both countries. But if the United States is looking for a “potentially low-risk, high reward” way to apply pressure on Maduro’s regime, it may already have the template, said Matthew Zweig of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a D.C. think tank.

The U.S. Treasury Department recently sanctioned Venezuelan business executives who took over one of the country’s last independent broadcasters. U.S. sanctions will be lifted—if they sell the station to a new owner. Targeted sanctions like that could both punish Maduro cronies and restore some elements of Venezuelan democracy if properly carried out, Zweig said.

“If you find an effective way to target the regime’s inner circle, and take money, and target assets, then you’re onto something,” he said.

Update, Jan. 23, 2019: This story was updated to include additional details about worldwide recognition of Guaidó’s presidency. It was also updated with comment from Matthew Zweig of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Update, Jan. 25, 2019: This story was updated to include new information about Elliott Abrams and Pompeos trip to New York for meetings at the United Nations.

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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