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Guaidó’s Plan for Venezuela Is in Limbo
The opposition leader’s call for Venezuelans to fill the streets and for the military to turn on the president has not yet brought about the change he seeks.
BOGOTÁ—When Venezuelans woke on Tuesday morning to news that Juan Guaidó had finally launched his audacious bid to militarily topple the country’s embattled President Nicolás Maduro—whom over 50 countries, including the United States, regard as illegitimate—there was a current of excitement. “We’re counting on the people of Venezuela. Today the armed forces are clearly with the people,” Guaidó said in a video address, flanked by armed national guardsmen loyal to him and, most surprisingly, Leopoldo López—his combative mentor who was sprung from house arrest, reportedly by soldiers, to join in the attempted uprising.
It appeared for a time that the long-awaited shift by the military had come, and Maduro would no longer be protected in power amid a deepening humanitarian crisis that has seen 3 million Venezuelans flee widespread food shortages made worse by skyrocketing inflation.
However, by nightfall López had retreated to foreign embassies—first Chile’s, then Spain’s—and a few hours later Maduro appeared on television. Flanked by top military and political brass, he declared that Guaidó’s team “failed in their plan,” mocking the opposition and labelling López a “terrorist.” “They failed in their call, because the people of Venezuela want peace,” he said in a trademark rambling speech.
Despite his claim that “we will continue to emerge victorious … in the months and years ahead. I have no doubt about it,” few in Venezuela and abroad are certain what could happen next.
What does seem clear is that Guaidó needs a new approach to break the stalemate, experts in Venezuelan politics say. While the protests he had called for on May 1 did occur throughout the country, with crowds coming to hear Guaidó speak in Caracas, it plainly wasn’t enough to generate a major shift in the ranks of the military.
Guaidó himself knows that the military—long the kingmaker in political disputes in Venezuela—is the key to taking Miraflores, the presidential palace. Guaidó chose to set off the May 1 demonstrations a day early, surrounded by soldiers, and calling on the “military family” to support him as “legitimate commander in chief of the armed forces.”
In January, he canvassed military bases across the country, offering amnesty to soldiers who abandoned Maduro. The document he distributed read: “The military and police that contribute to the reestablishment of democratic order will be able to reinsert themselves in the democratic life of our country.” And the effort to bring U.S.-sent humanitarian aid across the border with Colombia into Venezuela in late February—which ended in catastrophe as Maduro’s border blockades held—was also partially geared toward getting the military to abandon its paymaster.
Tuesday was the most ostentatious effort yet. But while a small cadre of national guardsmen did side with Guaidó—at one point skirmishing with Maduro’s forces outside the La Carlota Air Base in Caracas—the wave of defections from high-profile leaders and the rank and file soldiers he was hoping for did not come.
The lesson is clear, political observers say. “Protests alone cannot change anything,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst. Pantoulas went on to reference mass protests in 2017 that left scores dead and thousands hurt but did little to loosen Maduro’s grip on power. “While Maduro controls the military and a small but defiant section of the population, and all of the state’s apparatus, he will be able to unleash tremendous repression just as he did in 2017,” he said. “Without a negotiation with the military, with the police, we will not see a change.”
But neither does Maduro seem able to advance his case. “One thing is certain: This crisis cannot continue with two leaders,” Pantoulas said. “Maduro will never be secure in his position while Guaidó and López are able to operate freely, and their strange parallel government, which doesn’t govern anything, will continue to be powerless while Maduro remains in office.”
Despite this, opposition leaders are claiming victory. In a second video address posted to social media ahead of Maduro’s speech, Guaidó urged supporters to continue with Operation Liberty.
“May 1, we continue to be in the streets, in the selected places of gathering chosen and defined in all the national territory,” he said. “Over the expanse and length of Venezuela, we will be in the streets. We will see you all in the streets. That is our territory.”
Vanessa Neumann, Guaidó’s envoy to the United Kingdom, reinforced her boss’s claim that the May 1 protests could be crucial to this next turbulent phase in Venezuela’s constitutional crisis. “We need to see how many people come out into the streets. Guaidó needs as many people as possible to overwhelm the military,” Neumann told Foreign Policy, implying that violent repression is a possibility. “Unfortunately, you don’t overthrow a military dictatorship in one day—everyone knows that.”
Some small fissures in the upper echelons of the security forces may be starting to show. On Tuesday, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, Venezuela’s feared intelligence agency, broke with Maduro in an open letter to the Venezuelan people. “The hour has arrived for us to look for other ways of doing politics,” Figuera wrote, adding that corruption among political and military elites had become so commonplace that “many high-ranking public servants practice it like a sport.” It is that corruption, alongside ideological affinity, that has kept most loyalists on Maduro’s side. In June 2018, U.S. authorities reportedly seized $800 million from Diosdado Cabello, one of Maduro’s top lieutenants.
The current impasse could lead to a renewed push for a negotiated off ramp from the crisis, David Smilde, the senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America specializing in Venezuela. Both sides have so far been skeptical of negotiations, with a lack of trust on either side leading to breakdowns in previous attempts.
“Hopefully what this will do is lead to a little more effort in engaging in the politics of negotiation, because this is the latest failure in the strategy of pushing for a collapse, of trying to get the military to turn against Maduro,” Smilde told Foreign Policy. “Again we saw a lot of rhetoric and bluster that the opposition was turning a corner, yet it wasn’t convincing enough to get people to buy it, so hopefully the opposition and their U.S. backers will rethink their strategy.”
Those U.S. backers are also in a corner. The Trump administration has repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table,” keeping alive the lingering threat of a military intervention first floated by the president in 2017. But Washington has done little yet to hurt the Maduro government beyond tightening economic sanctions.