Juan Guaido (center) with protesters on Jan. 11, 2019. Photo courtesy Voice of America.
Ten days ago, when Vice President Mike Pence published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal under the headline “Venezuela, America Stands With You,” I set it aside as the basis for a blog post – with the additional notation, “but how?”
I got my answer, or at least some of it, the next day.
That was when Juan Guaido, the elected leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself interim president by the authority of an article in the country’s constitution and called for early, free and fair elections to replace Nicolas Maduro. Maduro had just had himself sworn in less than two weeks earlier for a new six-year term following balloting that was neither free nor fair. The date of Guaido’s declaration, Jan. 23, had been chosen for major protests to honor the anniversary of the fall of Venezuela’s military dictatorship in 1958.
President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as the country’s leader within minutes, making it obvious that both Pence’s statement and Guaido’s declaration of power had been choreographed in advance. In quick succession, Canada, Australia, most of the democracies in Latin America, and Israel followed Trump’s lead and recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s acting president.
A motley crew of authoritarian and leftist governments lined up to support Maduro against what they called foreign (particularly American) interference. These included China, which is Venezuela’s largest creditor; Cuba, whose secret police permeate the Venezuelan military to sniff and snuff out opposition to Maduro; Bolivia; and – to its great discredit – Mexico, under newly installed left-wing president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Russia, too, continues to recognize Maduro, though Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement, “Russia stands ready to help settle this domestic political situation in Venezuela as much as it can, without meddling in this country’s internal affairs.”
Europe has been mostly a no-show. Six European Union nations, including France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom, jointly issued a pointless call for Maduro to announce new elections lest they support his rival. The subsequent official statement from the EU was even more timid. Having already “won” an election that everyone except the incumbent and his sponsors views as a sham, Maduro refused to hold another. What would anyone gain from an encore performance of last year’s pretend elections, anyhow? Some left-wing and authoritarian European governments, including Greece and Turkey, did not even join the call for elections; they instead expressed solidarity with Maduro.
For the past week, Venezuela has been caught in a standoff, as thousands marched for Maduro’s removal while military commanders mainly professed their loyalty to the regime that pays them with what little money the country has, though there have been a few defectors. Maduro has frozen Guaido’s bank accounts and barred him from leaving the country. Guaido, in turn, has called for more protests this weekend and has criticized Maduro’s repeated calls for talks as a bad-faith gesture by the person responsible for the country’s current humanitarian crisis.
The American administration has moved to ramp up pressure on Maduro by announcing sanctions on Venezuela’s all-important oil sector, placing the keys to the country’s resources in Guaido’s hands. Whether he can gain access to the lock is still an open question.
For now, the Trump administration’s strategy seems to be to starve the Maduro regime of the cash it needs to continue buying the military’s loyalty, until the rotten structure of Maduro’s government collapses on its own. But the Cubans and Russians are already making noises about shoring it up, and China may also seek to protect its own interests by bankrolling Maduro.
The ultimate question is whether other countries – neighbors like Colombia and Brazil, or the better-equipped United States and Canada – are prepared to intervene in Venezuela more directly. We might start by announcing that we have plenty of room in the Guantanamo Bay detention center for Venezuelan military officers and foreign mercenaries who facilitate violent repression of the Venezuelan people, should the legitimate interim government in Caracas ask us to accommodate them. If we employ direct force, my guess is that the Venezuelan military will display no more resistance than American forces encountered in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. Both of those countries today remain in reasonably stable condition.
Is U.S. military action truly in the cards? President Trump has made the usual vow that all options are on the table. As if to reinforce this possibility, National Security Advisor John Bolton allowed himself to be photographed carrying a notepad with the handwritten notation, “5,000 troops to Colombia.” Maybe it was an accident. Maybe it was a message.
The Venezuelans want their country back. They deserve it. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at the United Nations this week, it’s time for everyone to pick a side.