It looks very much like the beginning of the end for Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. On Wednesday, 23 January, political opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the “interim-president” of Venezuela.
At a speech to supporters in front of the National Assembly, Guaidó said, “I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, [install] a transitional government, and hold free elections.”
At this point a number of countries in the Western Hemisphere have recognized Guaidó’s legitimacy as acting president; these nations include: Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru. The Brazilian government also threw in its support with President Jair Bolsonaro tweeting that Guaidó would help the return of “peace and democracy to Venezuela.” Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), also tweeted his congratulations to Guaidó and voiced the organization’s “recognition to spur the country’s return to democracy.” The Mexican state was a bit more hesitant to recognize the new self-declared president, but indicated that it may have a change of policy in the very near future. The official response from Mexico City stated that their position on Venezuela remains the same “for the time being.”
The support from Latino neighbors is no doubt welcomed news for Guaidó. But the biggest diplomatic win for the self-declared president has been to attain the official backing of the United States.
In a release from the State Department, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the U.S. “recognizes Juan Guaidó as the new interim President of Venezuela, and strongly supports his courageous decision to assume that role.” The statement made it clear that America was not backing Guaidó on a whim. Indeed, from a purely legal perspective, Guaidó has the authority to wrest the executive powers from Nicolás Maduro. Pompeo asserted that it was well within Guaidó’s legal prerogative to make this bold move, is it was “pursuant to Article 233 of Venezuela’s constitution and supported by the National Assembly.” The article being referenced by Secretary Pompeo is from Title V of the Venezuelan Republic’s most important legal document. There, the constitution deals with a scenario in which the “President of the Republic become[s] permanently unavailable to serve.” One of the definitions of this unavailability is the president “abandon[ing] his position, duly declared by the National Assembly.” Guaidó was in fact the president of the National Assembly prior to this incident, having been voted in at the end of last year, and assumed office on 5 January. Needless to say, Guaidó enjoys tremendous support from this body. Conclusion: If Guaidó declared Maduro out, he’s out.
Maduro, not surprisingly, has declared Guaidó’s self appointment illegal. In reaction to Washington’s support of the opposition leader, Maduro has cut off diplomatic ties with the U.S.
It is very important for Washington to present its position on Venezuela’s political upheaval with tact and precision.
The uncomfortable fact is that the United States has quite a substantial history of intervening in Latin America. Going all the way back to the Monroe Doctrine of the early 19th century, America first ventured into world affairs by concerning itself with its southern neighbors. During the Cold War-era, America took a rather interventionist stance toward South America. From the National Reorganization Process headed by Argentine dictator Jorge Videla in the late 1970s, to the Chilean coup d’état of Augusto Pinochet, the United States actively supported several dictatorial regimes on the continent. All of this was done under the umbrella effort to prevent communist encroachment in the Western Hemisphere. This dark history is of course the elephant in the room, which critics of the U.S. have been quick to point out. Bolivian President Evo Morales for instance (an ally of Maduro) tweeted recently: “Our solidarity is with the Venezuelan people and Nicolás Maduro in these decisive hours when the claws of imperialism are once again trying to deal a death blow to democracy and self-determination for the peoples of South America. We will not be the backyard of the U.S. again.”
It is for this reason that the administration is framing its support of Guaidó as that of backing a legitimate, legal representative of the people, not propping up a usurper.
Long in Coming
There is little doubt that most Venezuelans are hopeful for Maduro’s ouster. The tragic decline of Venezuela has been the subject of international headlines for a long time.
Nicolás Maduro exacerbated an already serious problem by implementing his financial policies over the past year. The cries for Maduro’s removal have gotten louder and louder over the recent period. Polls from Venezuelan citizens began to show a strong inclination for the international community to intervene. The fact that Maduro was the target of a coordinated assassination attempt last August was a strong indication of the hate Venezuelans have for their leader.
This is another point the U.S. has been hammering home: it is clear as day that the current government is not in line with the will of the people. It is only moral to support regime change in the context of so much suffering within the general populace. “The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolás Maduro’s disastrous dictatorship…[they] are clamoring for a free and democratic Venezuela,” read the State Department release.
The Military Factor
The success of Guaidó’s “revolution” will depend largely on the loyalty of the country’s military commanders. Early on the morning of 23 January, Guaidó made a plea to the armed forces via Twitter, writing: “To all of the national armed forces, our call is clear — from this parliament, we extend our hand and ask you to come to the side of the constitution and the people, your people.” Later that day, however, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino declared that “the country’s armed forces disavow any president who is self-proclaimed or is controlled by dark interests.”
As things stand now, it is unclear how the current turmoil will play itself out.
And the stakes are high. President Donald Trump has warned that “all options are on the table” for a U.S. response if the Maduro government seeks to hold on to power by force.