Argument

Guaidó’s Make or Break Moment

Calling for the final phase of the revolution was the Venezuelan opposition leader’s boldest move yet, and the outcome will show whether his protest still has legs.

Forces loyal to President Nicolás Maduro confront supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in Caracas on April 30.
Forces loyal to President Nicolás Maduro confront supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó in Caracas on April 30. Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó may have made his most daring move to date. Flanked by military officers at an air base in Caracas, Guaidó called on his compatriots to take to the streets to put an end to the Maduro regime. He urged the military to support their effort.

One way or another, Guaidó’s maneuver could be one of his last.

As Guaidó delivered his remarks, another opposition figure, Leopoldo López, stood by his side. López was the biggest thorn in Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s side before Guaidó rose to the scene this year. In 2014, he led a series of fruitless protests that landed him in house arrest—at least until this week. By appearing with the new opposition leader, he is demonstrating unity among anti-Maduro factions and sending a message that the president’s control of the security apparatus is not airtight.

Guaidó also managed to convince a faction of officers to film his speech on a military base, and several of them stood behind him while he delivered it—some even unmasked. That was a powerful signal to holdouts that the tide may be turning in his favor.

For the Venezuelan opposition, the video message couldn’t have come sooner. Over the last several months, their revolution has reached a stalemate. They’ve staged protests and tried to import aid against Maduro’s wishes as a way to force the military into either repressing Venezuelan citizens or joining the protest. Time and again, the military has closed ranks around Maduro. But Maduro has been unable to entirely silence Guaidó, in part because much of the international community backs him and has threatened to intervene on his behalf.

By declaring the start of the “final phase” of the revolution on Tuesday and calling for major protests Wednesday, Guaidó is attempting to break the deadlock.

If the last five years have demonstrated anything, it is that popular protests are unlikely unseat Maduro by themselves.

But if the last five years have demonstrated anything, it is that popular protests are unlikely unseat Maduro by themselves. Guaidó needs the backing of Venezuela’s most powerful player—the military—and he knows it.

He surely remembers Venezuela’s last coup, which briefly displaced Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, from office in April 2002. Back then, a series of street protests snowballed as they pushed toward the presidential palace, leading to clashes with groups of Chávez supporters who met them in the street.

The resulting chaos and violence spurred the military to intervene quickly. Backed by the powerful business sector, members of the military high command orchestrated the kidnapping of Chávez and secretly ferried him out of the country while the opposition swore in Pedro Carmona, the head of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce.

But as Chávez supporters flooded the streets around the presidential palace, the pro-Chávez Presidential Guard turned on the coup plotters and took to the airwaves to declare that they were in control. The Presidential Guard seized on confusion and dissent within the broader military and were spurred on by Gen. Raúl Baduel, a Chávez ally who headed the paratrooper division that Chávez had previously served in.

Chávez returned to the country within 48 hours and was reinstalled. The protests quickly died down, and Chávez ultimately emerged as a stronger leader. The opposition was discredited as disloyal, and the president weakened it further with strategic expropriations and investigations. He also set out on a multiyear effort to attack major media outlets, some of which were complicit in the coup, and to root out dissent within the military.

The next several days in Venezuela could be similarly decisive. The opposition is already amassing in the streets, emboldened by Guaidó’s call to action. Simultaneously, the military high command has declared its loyalty to Maduro. Top allies of the president have called for armed pro-regime groups to take to the streets. The United States has also weighed in, forcefully supporting Guaidó. Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott called for more direct U.S. military involvement.

The lack of any major military figures publicly casting their lot with the opposition should worry the opposition leader.

It is too early to say if Guaidó’s latest attempt to replace Maduro will succeed. But the lack of any major military figures publicly casting their lot with the opposition should worry the opposition leader. He says he has military support behind the scenes, which could be critical to a democratic transition, but he has not produced solid evidence of it.

If Guaidó fails to oust Maduro in the next few days, the star of his revolution will likely fall. The end could be short: Maduro may be emboldened to arrest him and put the most serious challenge to his rule to rest at once. Or it could be longer. The president may decide to simply let Guaidó fizzle out, betting that as time lapses, his chances of mustering a sufficiently strong group of Venezuelans to topple the government will only continue to decline.

Either way, the opposition would be back in a familiar place: weak and factionalized without a clear way to beat the ruling United Socialist Party government. Guaidó has a few short days to try to shape a very different future.

Michael Albertus is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago; his book Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

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