Venezuela: A Troubled Country in the News
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GUAIDÓ SEEKS END GAME IN VENEZUELA BUT LACKS POWERFUL PIECES
Sixty-one years to the day from the overthrow of the Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, another dictator, President Nicolás Maduro, was supplanted. At least that is the symbolism for which the President of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, was striving when he proclaimed himself Interim President on 23 January. The trouble is Maduro has not been removed from power. Guaidó’s audacity won him the formal recognition of US President Donald Trump, and several regional governments, but while there was a minor uprising by National Guardsmen this week, and some large street protests, for now the armed forces are not swayed by Guaidó’s promise of an amnesty if they help to topple Maduro, who also enjoys the support of the Supreme Court. This leaves Guaidó as an unpromoted pawn unable to checkmate Maduro.
Guaidó formally announced his assumption of the Presidency on 23 January, invoking the Constitution to declare President Maduro to be illegitimate, during a large rally in Caracas. Guaidó called for supporters to “stay on the streets…until democracy is achieved”, insisting that the movement for change in Venezuela was “unstoppable” and “hope” had been reborn. He promised to call a transitional government, and free and fair elections.
The US government moved swiftly to recognise Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate President. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump said in a statement, adding that he would “use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy”. Extending sanctions to oil imports would be the most serious blow he could strike against the Venezuelan government, especially given the parlous state of the economy.
Trump urged other governments in the hemisphere to follow suit. The Presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and even Ecuador did so. The US has assiduously courted Ecuador in recent months, but President Lenín Moreno had demurred, even as bilateral relations with Venezuela soured, calling instead for a national dialogue process.
Maduro reacted with a message from the balcony of the Miraflores Presidential Palace, flanked by senior figureheads of the Bolivarian Revolution, including Vice President Delcy Rodríguez, and the President of the government-controlled National Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro announced the rupture of relations with the US and gave all the country’s consular personnel 72 hours to leave Venezuela. “We don’t want to return to the 20th century; the Venezuelan people say no to coups and imperialism,” Maduro said. At the present time, however, the 20th century holds more attractions for the majority of Venezuelans than the 21st century socialism espoused by Maduro who, with the collusion of the Supreme Court, carried out what most regional governments accept was a coup of his own by usurping the functions of the democratically elected National Assembly.
Maduro reserved particularly harsh words for Moreno who he branded “a Nazi fascist and traitor”. This excoriation of an estranged ally on the Left stood in stark contrast to Maduro’s treatment of the Right. There was generic criticism, but Maduro stopped short of taking on Guaidó. The closest he came was trying to draw a parallel with the brief Interim Presidency of Pedro Carmona after the failed coup against Hugo Chávez in April 2002. The most obvious difference being that Chávez enjoyed a popularity Maduro can only dream about, and had won democratic Presidential elections in 1998 that were not plagued with irregularities.
This suggests that the government has been caught off guard and is unsure about how to react to the challenge posed by Guaidó. Maduro called upon the judiciary to “preserve the democratic order” and Cabello said that “if the opposition oversteps the mark the judiciary will have to act”, but the opposition has not gone as far as this since 2002 and the government reaction has been much firmer for much less in the past.
This could be because Guaidó is employing a different tactic to previous opposition figureheads, not just protesting against Maduro but rather acting as if he is no longer in power.
Guaidó, for instance, named an Ambassador, Gustavo Tarre Briceño, to the Organization of American States. Guaidó also sought to countermand Maduro’s expulsion of US diplomats, saying that Venezuela maintained relations with every country in the world. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo duly announced that Maduro lacked “the legal authority to break diplomatic relations”.
The difficulty for the Maduro administration is that if domestic and international support swells for Guaidó it will become increasingly difficult to arrest him and charge him with sedition. There are no reliable figures on the size of the nationwide demonstrations against Maduro, but they were the largest for two years and appear to have topped 100,000. At least 13 people were killed in violent clashes across the country, according to the local human rights NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Conflictividad Social: three in Caracas, three in the western state of Barinas, two in each of the south-eastern states of Amazonas and Bolívar, two in the westernmost state of Táchira, and one in the western state of Portuguesa.
The Constitutional Tribunal of the Supreme Court, as anticipated by Cabello, declared all acts of the National Assembly to be null and void, and its resolutions “inadmissible and in violation of the constitution”, saying that under no circumstances could it assume executive powers. Guaidó responded by saying the Assembly would remain “very firm in its decisions”, and dismissed the Supreme Court’s ruling as “an aberration”. He said the Supreme Court did not have the mandate to annul the Assembly’s decisions.
Juan José Mendoza, the President of the Constitutional Tribunal, urged the Attorney General’s office to “take immediate measures” in the face of the “criminal conduct” of the Assembly’s leaders. But there is no sign of any legal action against them yet.
Crucially, however, neither is there any sign of cracks in the military’s support of Maduro despite Guaidó’s best efforts to foment unrest within the institution. Defence Minister General-in-chief Vladimir Padrino López said on Twitter that the military remains steadfast in its loyalty to Maduro. The military hierarchy has a vested interest in the survival of the Bolivarian Revolution. The rank-and-file much less so but it could be deterred by the fact that the government has arrested numerous members of the armed forces suspected of disloyalty in recent months.
There was a revolt early on 21 January by a small group of National Guardsmen, under Sergeant Major José Gregorio Bandres, who stole weapons but were met with “firm resistance”, according to Padrino López, near the military oupost of Cotiza in western Caracas. Padrino López said that 27 arrests had been made, blaming the “dark interests of the far Right” for the incident.
Guaidó said, somewhat hopefully, that the uprising was indicative of “a generalised feeling prevailing within the armed forces”. The revolt was the catalyst, however, for a series of pots and pans protests across Caracas, especially in poor neighbourhoods, such as the Petare slum, which was once a bastion of support for the Bolivarian Revolution, and elsewhere in the country.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales tweeted his full support for President Maduro “in these decisive hours in which the claws of imperialism once again look to deliver a death blow to democracy and self-determination to the peoples of South America”.
Neither the Uruguayan nor the Mexican governments recognised Juan Guaidó as the Interim President (the latter adding “for now”).
The European Union (EU) could not reach a unified foreign policy so stuck to the line of calling for fresh elections to restore democracy while stopping short of recognising Guaidó.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry criticised US “interference in [Venezuela’s] domestic issues”, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of “deepening divisions in Venezuelan society…and escalating the conflict”.
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