Recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s Leader Isn’t a Coup. It’s an Embrace of Democracy.

Treating the Maduro regime as illegitimate, sanctioning its top officials, and sending aid despite a blockade will hasten its demise and speed the transition to democratic governance.

Venezuela's opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaidó speaks to the press at the Federal Legislative Palace, in Caracas, on February 4, 2019.
Venezuela's opposition leader and self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaidó speaks to the press at the Federal Legislative Palace, in Caracas, on February 4, 2019. (YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The plight of the Venezuelan people has resulted in one of the largest refugee flows in the world today. Millions have fled and are fleeing their homeland—a crisis that is being perpetuated by Nicolás Maduro’s corrupt and criminal dictatorship.

While the United Nations sounds the alarm on a critical shortage of basic necessities and the weaponization of food and medicine—resulting in dramatic rises in infant and maternal mortality, starvation, stunted growth, and a staggering resurgence of diseases that were formerly eradicated—Maduro has prevented international relief, blocking humanitarian aid. Rather than allowing the Venezuelan people to express their grievances and exercise their constitutional right to peacefully protest and seek solutions at the ballot box, he instead arrests, imprisons, tortures, and murders them.

Whether from independent Venezuelan organizations such as Foro Penal and the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, international nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, or intergovernmental organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, there is a critical mass of studies on the human rights crisis in Venezuela.

The OAS Panel of Independent International Experts held public hearings and examined all the evidence, publishing a 451-page report that found there are reasonable grounds to conclude that seven major crimes against humanity have been committed against civilians in Venezuela, including mass murder and extrajudicial executions; widespread imprisonment and deprivation of liberty; horrific acts of torture; and the weaponization of rape and sexual violence. A U.N. investigation reached a similar conclusion.

Maduro’s brutal and criminal assault on the Venezuelan people is, at its core, an offensive against the liberal democratic order that is meant to protect them. Judges are jailed, the rule of law ruined, and civil society silenced—all while democrats are detained, dispossessed, and disappeared.

In 2017, Maduro arbitrarily convened a “Constituent Assembly,” seeking to replace the opposition-controlled and democratically-elected National Assembly. This unconstitutional pseudo-legislature consists entirely of Maduro’s supporters and family members, selected in a sham election that even the company running the voting machines for the regime called fraudulent.

In 2018, Maduro had his illegitimate assembly unconstitutionally call a snap presidential election, while unjustly imprisoning or banning any viable opposition candidate. In an unprecedented move, the international community condemned this election as a fraud, with over 50 countries, the OAS, and the European Union refusing to recognize this farcical presidential vote that was neither free nor fair.

Last month, Maduro sought to strike the death knell for Venezuelan democracy, formally inaugurating himself as president, without a mandate. Significantly, the hitherto divided democratic opposition quickly coalesced around Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly—Venezuela’s last remaining democratically elected institution—still operating despite Maduro’s efforts to replace it.

Guaidó invoked Venezuela’s constitutional crisis provisions—Articles 233, 333, and 350—which empower the president of the National Assembly to assume interim presidency of the country to restore the democratic order. He has already begun this process. Guaidó has offered amnesty to any military officers who disobey the dictatorship and has indicated he would do the same for Maduro if he were to allow free and fair elections.

If the leadership of his political party, Voluntad Popular, is any indication, Guaidó’s aspirations for the future are likely to bear fruit. First, they found common ground and forged a united front with a famously fractious opposition. Second—and contrary to what the defenders of dictatorship declare—the Voluntad Popular is a progressive and pluralistic political party. Indeed, the charter of this social democratic party calls for an inclusive society, free of discrimination based on “religion, age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, or political opinions.” This affirmation found expression in the last election, where the first LGBTQ legislators in Venezuela’s history were voted in as part of Voluntad Popular’s team, with the internationally renowned transgender human rights lawyer Tamara Adrián among them.

Third, and most importantly for the future of human rights and democracy in Venezuela, the opposition has relied on the courage and commitment of the Venezuelan people. They sustained mass grassroots gatherings throughout Venezuela in the face of violent repression.

Calling Guaidó’s nascent government a U.S. coup is as absurd as it is abhorrent. It is to deny the struggle and strength of the Venezuelan people, and the vigor and values of their constitution. It is also to minimize and marginalize the mass mobilization of support and solidarity for the Venezuelan people from the international community of democracies.

It is an understandable point of propaganda that the dictatorship would pursue, given both its anti-Americanism and some of the historically harmful U.S. interventionism in the region. But fostering such a notion in the current circumstances is fantastical, given the peaceful and constitutional character of the Venezuelan people’s democratic revolution.

Rather than a regime change emanating from Washington, support for Guaidó has been spearheaded by Venezuela’s neighboring democracies and regional figures well-known for their principled human rights leadership, such as Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro. The Lima group of regional states was the first to denounce the dictatorship for Maduro’s sham inauguration and renounce their recognition of the regime, well before the U.S. government chose to do so. Likewise, Canada has had a special coordinator for Venezuela for a number of years now, while Washington just appointed such an envoy only last week. Clearly, the United States has not been playing the role Maduro would like the world to believe.

There has indeed been foreign military intervention in Venezuela, just not from the United States. Rather, a community of authoritarian states—Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Syria—is backing Maduro. Indeed, Putin has been sending Russian mercenaries to support him, on the heels of a visit by nuclear-capable Russian bombers and talk of a joint military base. While diplomatically endorsing and militarily entrenching the Maduro dictatorship, Putin has encouraged pursuing negotiations. But such negotiations without preconditions have already been pursued many times, with many different mediators, always resulting in the Venezuelan people being worse off than before.

There is only one path forward. First, the international community should stand with and strengthen Guaidó’s democratic presidency. The critical mass of countries that recognized his rule should rally their allies to do the same. Such recognition could entail the dismissal of the dictatorship’s diplomats and the welcoming of Guaidó’s envoys for democratic dialogue and strategic support.

Second, countries opposed to Maduro should enact an arms embargo on the dictatorship, including on servicing existing deals and on the sale of dual-use materials.

Third, targeted sanctions against individuals—such as those enabled by Global Magnitsky legislation—should be leveled against Venezuela’s architects of repression and their enablers, publicly naming and shaming them, and enforcing travel bans and asset seizures against them. While some states have already undertaken such sanctions, they should coordinate internationally to significantly enlarge and intensify its implementation. This may include listing the family and friends of such officials, who at best live lavish lives abroad fueled by corruption and at worst act as a front to help the main perpetrators evade sanctions.

Fourth, and in this same spirit of justice and accountability, countries should join in the referral of the situation in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court. The ICC has opened a preliminary examination—a major first step toward the prospective prosecution of those responsible—but is woefully understaffed, underfunded, and under pressure from many competing undertakings. Contributions from supportive governments—whether moral or material—can help strengthen the important work of the court.

Finally, while the Maduro dictatorship has blocked humanitarian aid, Guaidó has urgently appealed to the world to supply crucial aid. Friends of Venezuela should heed this call, grounded in the recent U.N. resolution, by organizing a major international convoy of humanitarian aid for the Venezuelan people. It should be launched publicly, prominently, and peacefully, with media encouraged to join and observe. The Venezuelan soldiers guarding the ports of entry and implementing Maduro’s cruel blockade—and whose families are also suffering the deprivations wrought by the dictatorship—would be presented with an opportunity to join Guaidó and the U.N. in alleviating the suffering, or the Maduro dictatorship in perpetuating it. Their choice would be broadcast for all to see.

By sending these messages, governments throughout the Americas and the world will make clear that democracy and the people’s will will prevail over demagoguery and repression.

Irwin Cotler is the former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, the pro bono international legal counsel to imprisoned Venezuelan democratic opposition leader Leopoldo López, a member of the OAS International Panel of Legal Experts on Venezuela, and the chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

Brandon Silver is the director of policy and projects at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and an international advisor to members of the Venezuelan democratic opposition.