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It’s unclear if it will work.
Juan Guaidó, the US-backed opposition leader of Venezuela, launched a military uprising against President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday — a dramatic escalation in the ongoing political fight between the two rivals that threatens to plunge the country into open civil conflict.
In January, Guaidó declared himself the country’s rightful president. He argued that Maduro, who has been in power for six years, rigged the election last May that kept him in power — and that as a result, Guaidó, as the head of the National Assembly, is now the rightful interim president of the country according to the Venezuelan constitution.
The Trump administration and more than 50 governments in Latin America and Western Europe agree with him, and have called on Maduro to step down.
But Maduro has refused, leading to a protracted political struggle between the two men and their supporters, both foreign and domestic, that has further destabilized the already economically devastated country and occasionally turned violent.
For weeks, Guaidó’s supporters have held protests aimed in part at convincing the nation’s military, which has thus far remained loyal to Maduro, to break with the dictator and support Guaidó. Experts say that without that support, Guaidó chances of seizing control of the country remain small.
So at dawn on Tuesday, Guaidó launched his boldest — and riskiest — gambit yet: releasing a video calling on the entire country, including the military, to rise up and overthrow Maduro once and for all.
Flanked by a few dozen armed members of the Venezuelan National Guard and several armored vehicles at an airbase in the capital city of Caracas, Guaidó announced the start of what he called “Operación Libertad” (Operation Liberty), which he said was the “final phase” of the push to remove the entrenched socialist leader.
“Our armed forces, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men who follow the constitution have heard our call,” Guaidó in the video. “People of Venezuela, we will go to the street with the armed forces to continue taking the streets until we consolidate the end of usurpation, which is already irreversible.”
The video also featured a surprise guest star standing near Guaidó: Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s mentor and the founder of his political party, who has been in prison since 2014 for organizing protests against Maduro’s rule. He said he was released by security forces on Guaidó’s orders, making his surprise reappearance all the more intriguing.
Just a few hours after the video was released, US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly threw their support behind Guaidó’s operation, suggesting the US may back whatever military measure the interim president deems fit.
Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad. The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated. #EstamosUnidosVE
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) April 30, 2019
But the seemingly intended goal — to put extra pressure on Maduro to step aside — may not work. Rather, there’s a small yet terrifying chance that Guaidó has made a greater conflict more likely.
Maduro has shown no sign of backing down so far
Maduro responded shortly after the video’s release by saying he and his supporters have “nerves of steel” and that he wants “the maximum mobilization of the people to assure a victory for peace.”
Shots have been reported outside the airbase since Guaidó’s video went live, and an armored vehicle drove through a crowd of Guaidó supporters (warning: video may be disturbing to some viewers). Around seven people are currently being treated for injuries, according to reports.
Some videos have surfaced showing a few Venezuelan troops defecting and joining the opposition’s side, although it’s unclear how many will ultimately switch. And that number is critical: If only a few defect, Guaidó won’t have enough firepower to forcibly remove the president.
— TVVenezuela Noticias (@TVVnoticias) April 30, 2019
Meanwhile, parts of Caracas are shut down as thousands of people have taken to the streets to once again ask Maduro to step aside. This isn’t entirely new, as anti-Maduro protests have taken place in the country for years.
But Andrei Serbin Pont, a Venezuela expert at the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Investigations, a research group based in Argentina, told me the standoff looks different from others in the past.
“It is interesting to see the civilian leadership in the streets with elements of the armed forces backing the opposition, a bit different from past military uprisings,” he said. “The absence of Maduro, and the fact that we have not seen a large military deployment of infantry, armored vehicles, helicopters, and combat aircraft over Caracas leads me to believe that Maduro might be lacking quite a bit of military support.”
Still, Maduro’s regime is not taking the situation lightly and asking its supporters to defend it. “We call on the people to remain in maximum alert so that, together with the glorious Bolivian armed forces, we defeat this attempted coup and preserve peace,” Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez also noted. “We will win.”
There is already a big standoff. Maduro’s anti-riot forces have stopped at the bridge leading into the La Carlota airbase where Guaidó filmed his video. Volleys of tear gas have been reported, although it’s unclear who threw what or at whom. Opposition supporters carrying flags and riding motorcycles have made their way to the airbase. As of now, the installation remains unbreached.
Maduro’s forces have also blocked off the city’s main highway, and his supporters have asked nearby residents to go to the presidential palace in a show of support for the dictator. It’s possible this all may lead to a future clash between Maduro and Guaidó supporters in a prominent part of the city.
Social media is already heavily restricted in Venezuela, and it’s possible, should the situation worsen, that access will be further restricted.
It’s a scary situation — and what’s scarier still is it’s unclear where it all will lead.
What is Guaidó trying to do? Experts aren’t quite sure.
Venezuela expert David Smilde of the Washington Office on Latin America human rights organization thinks Guaidó’s gambit is mostly bluster. “It’s a sort of performative utterance in which you try to generate something by saying it is already occurring,” he told me. “It could work, but it probably won’t.”
“Guaidó has clearly decided to push the situation and cause a fracture in the regime that could bring down Maduro,” he continued. “So far, it doesn’t look like more than a crack.”
Others say it’s an attempt by Guaidó and his mentor to raise the stakes. “Guaidó and López are trying to bait Maduro into a serious crackdown on the opposition,” said Timothy Gill, a Venezuela expert at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “If they’re arrested or otherwise, this will incentivize a more intensive US response since it would be the interim president under arrest.”
“I’m not sure [Guaidó and the opposition] are convinced the population is going to rise behind them and oust Maduro, so perhaps the only option, they think, is the US,” Gill added.
Which means the chance of an inter-Venezuelan fight is rising right along with the chance of a US military intervention.
This is what Guaidó, in a desperate bid to dislodge a dictator, may have wrought.
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