Will Guaidó’s Gamble Pay Off?

Venezuela’s opposition leader has failed to gain enough military support to oust Nicolás Maduro, and Washington’s policies aren’t helping him.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó arrives at a demonstration at Avenida Francisco de Miranda on May 1 in Caracas.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó arrives at a demonstration at Avenida Francisco de Miranda on May 1 in Caracas. Edilzon Gamez/Getty Images

It started with a surprise but ended like so many other protests against Venezuela’s autocratic government. And predictably, the Trump administration blamed it all on the Cubans and the Russians.

On Tuesday morning, Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader sworn in by the National Assembly as president in January and now recognized in favor of embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro by much of the international community, surprised his fellow citizens and the world when he appeared at dawn alongside the well-known opposition leader Leopoldo López and members of the military, calling for the armed forces to join his seemingly spontaneous popular protest. Flanked by military officers and civilians outside the La Carlota Air Base, in a video released at the start of the protest, Guaidó declared that Maduro’s “usurpation” of power must end and called supporters and the military to join him in the “final phase,” saying defiantly that “the moment is now.”

Just a few moments before appearing in the video with Guaidó, López had been under house arrest. His public appearance indicated that his military captors had decided to change sides against the government and let him walk free. And soon afterward, social media feeds from Venezuela were filled with images of Venezuelan soldiers leaving their posts and donning masks and blue armbands to join Operation Liberty, declared by Guaidó in the speech posted on Twitter.

But despite the surprise and anticipation of millions who remained glued to their social media feeds, the hoped-for mass marches and defections of higher-level military officers never materialized. Less than 12 hours later, the civil-military uprising had fizzled out, leaving a swirl of rumors, recriminations, and tough posturing by the White House in its wake, with López negotiating his and his family’s refuge in the Spanish Embassy.

The hoped-for mass marches and defections of higher-level military officers never materialized.

This was the third effort by Guaidó to spark a massive defection of Maduro’s increasingly narrow and fragile governing circle, but it was preceded by a long line of other efforts stretching all the way back to just after the election of former President Hugo Chávez in 1998. Even in the immediate months after Chávez’s swearing in the following year, opposition leaders have been calling their supporters to the streets, all in the hopes of provoking a split within the government that would bring a change of power in favor of the opposition. That occurred briefly in April 2002, when National Guard troops fired into a crowd of protesters, leading to a shootout. Within 48 hours, the military asked Chávez to step down. Then they asked him to return when counterprotesters filled the streets demanding that he be reinstated.

Public protest became a necessity by the late 2000s. After electoral and legal channels to challenge Chávez’s rule and later that of Maduro, who succeeded him in 2013, were closed down, the opposition was left with few alternatives. The street became democratic opponents’ main form of political participation, always with the hope that there would be some split in the ruling circle or the military that would bring them to power.

After he had been sworn in by the National Assembly and recognized by dozens of foreign governments on Jan. 23, Guaidó followed the same script that day and again on Feb. 22. In the first case, Guaidó attempted to use his swearing-in to force Maduro to buckle. When that failed, Guaidó attempted to lead a caravan of humanitarian assistance across the border from Colombia to Venezuela. In neither instance did it provoke the hoped-for mutiny within the military top brass or among Maduro’s inner circle.

This week’s wave of protests may be Guaidó’s third strike. At issue is whether Venezuela’s most credible, unifying democratic leader in years can sustain his political capital after three calls for popular protests have failed. At this point, his calls to action are looking like so many of the efforts of previous leaders that have produced nothing but rising expectations and, ultimately, division within the ranks of the democratic opposition over strategy and leadership.

Looming in the background through all of this has been U.S. policy. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has taken the lead globally in imposing targeted sanctions on individuals associated with the Maduro government who are accused of corruption, illicit activities, and human rights abuses. It’s a long list. At last count, approximately 500-600 individuals either had their U.S. visas revoked or their financial accounts frozen. Shortly after the Maduro government failed to crumble following Guaidó’s swearing-in, the White House also imposed a sweeping oil embargo on the Maduro government, followed later by sanctions on the Central Bank of Venezuela and a tightening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.

Since U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s Nov. 1, 2018, speech in Miami—timed strategically just before the hotly contested midterm elections in Florida, home to a large Venezuelan American and Cuban American population—the administration has sought to fuse its Venezuela policy with tighter sanctions on Cuba, linked to what Bolton claimed was a broader strategy against what he termed the “Troika of Tyranny”: Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The idea was that by simultaneously squeezing Cuba and Venezuela, the Trump administration could both force Cuba to cease its support of Maduro and, by bringing about regime change in Venezuela, end Venezuela’s petro-patronage program that has kept the decrepit Cuban regime afloat.

The logic was never clear, though. What Bolton and the White House never defined in their Venezuela policy was how applying pressure to Cuba and Venezuela would result in political change in both countries.

On the one hand, tightening U.S. sanctions on Cuba that punished state-owned companies and threatened lawsuits against non-U.S. companies that invested in expropriated property—as this administration has done—would seem to only deepen the dependence of Cuba on Venezuelan largesse. At the same time, an oil embargo and individual sanctions on corrupt Venezuelan officials would only seem to deepen Venezuela’s dependence on its Cuban advisors—who assist them in both repression and subterfuge—as well as an array of authoritarian regimes supporting Maduro, among them China, which recently provided a $5 billion loan to the Venezuelan government; Russia, which recently sent 100 military advisors and equipment to the country; Turkey, which is helping Maduro liquidate the government’s gold reserves; and Iran. But reality or even historical precedent, was never a strong suit of this U.S. administration.

What these policies never made clear is the logical link between tighter sanctions and the expectation that imposing suffering on a country would either provoke citizens to rise against a brutal government or provoke a decision by elites to defect to prompt regime change. As David Cohen and Zoe Weinberg recently argued, sanctions have never supported regime change and are unlikely to do so in Iran and Venezuela. History and logic are not on the side of the administration when it comes to sanctions and peaceful democratic change in Venezuela.

Nevertheless, in the wake of the failed uprising this week, Bolton denounced the Maduro regime, and Trump blamed Cuban advisors in Venezuela and threatened even greater sanctions on Cuba for its alleged omnipotent role in sustaining Maduro’s cruel, incompetent regime. For his part, shortly after the failure of the uprising, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed the Russians, whom he accused of preventing Maduro from leaving the country in the face of the protests. There is little evidence supporting Pompeo’s claims at the moment.

Throughout all of this, the Trump administration has stoked popular expectations of its support for regime change in Venezuela, promising repeatedly that “all options are on the table.” The promise—repeated by Bolton on Tuesday in a press conference when acknowledging that Maduro had survived Guaidó’s popular uprising—has only served to unrealistically inflate the expectations of Venezuelan citizens that the United States would come to the rescue. But as a number of observers and likely participants have argued, U.S. military intervention in Venezuela would be both politically and strategically foolhardy—even the U.S. Southern Command has downplayed the military option.

Indeed, despite its threats, the White House has failed to make good on its not-so-subtle promises. There is no credible plan of U.S. military support for the opposition in Venezuela. Nevertheless, the Trump administration continues to rattle a weak saber, sustaining the unrealistic hope among the Venezuelan opposition that the United States may someday come to the rescue and providing fodder for Maduro and others’ claims of imminent U.S. intervention to rally international and domestic supporters.

The Trump administration continues to rattle a weak saber, sustaining the unrealistic hope among the Venezuelan opposition that the United States may someday come to the rescue.

In the meantime, Maduro remains in power despite presiding over the worst humanitarian disaster in modern Latin American history. The popular protests and military defections have left him weakened, however. The pronouncements of his defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, and the former speaker of the National Assembly, the die-hard chavista Diosdado Cabello, during the tense moments this week—with both claiming that the government was strong and Padrino calling the opposition cowards—while the president remained silent with the exception of a tweet stating “Nerves of steel,” and calling on the military to defend the government, indicate that Maduro may have lost power within his inner circle.

Curiously, in his press conference, Bolton said that the administration had been in negotiations with Padrino López and the head of the pro-Maduro supreme court, Maikel Moreno. While he offered no evidence of this, calling them out as potential U.S. accomplices puts them at risk and likely guarantees that others will refuse to communicate with the United States for fear of being ratted out.

That loss of support did not produce a much-hoped-for regime change, but it does indicate uncertainty and fragility within the government. A power reshuffle and purge within the autocratic halls of government is likely. The same is true within the opposition as Guaidó confronts another public failure. And, sadly, U.S. policy toward Venezuela and Cuba will likely remain unchanged, despite its obvious failures.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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