Venezuelan Crisis Enters A New Stage

The situation in Venezuela entered a new stage yesterday as opposition leader Juan Guaidó claimed the nation's Presidency.

The situation in Venezuela took a surprising, and possibly dangerous, turn yesterday as the leading opposition leader claimed the Presidency over Nicolás Maduro, and the United States and other nations recognized the purported new government:

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela faced the most direct challenge to his hold on power on Wednesday, when an opposition leader stood in the streets of the capital and declared himself the legitimate president, cheered on by thousands of supporters and a growing number of governments, including the Trump administration.

Mr. Maduro responded furiously by cutting diplomatic ties with the United States. He gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, ordering them out with a derisive “be gone!” and accusing the Trump administration of plotting to overthrow him. The United States said it would ignore the deadline.

The fast-moving developments convulsed Venezuela, a once-prosperous country that has been devastated by years of political repression, economic mismanagement and corruption. But they also appeared to give new momentum to the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old National Assembly leader who stepped onto the national stage just recently.

Mr. Maduro immediately dismissed Mr. Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, calling it part of an American-led conspiracy to topple him. Demonstrating his continued grip on power, he signed an order expelling American diplomats on the balcony of the presidential palace.

“I am the only president of Venezuela,” Mr. Maduro said. “We do not want to return to the 20th century of gringo interventions and coups d’état.”

Mr. Maduro’s reaction came a few hours after Mr. Trump, in a White House statement, formally announced his recognition of Mr. Guaidó as the interim leader of Venezuela.

“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Mr. Trump said.

A senior American official briefing reporters in Washington warned that if Mr. Maduro used force against opponents, the United States could impose new sanctions, and did not rule out the use of military force to stop him. It was not the first time the Trump administration has warned of a “military option” for Venezuela.

Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Organization of American States have also recognized Mr. Guaidó as the country’s leader.

While Venezuelan state media ignored Mr. Guaidó and his supporters in the streets, there was scant evidence of large-scale repression of opposition supporters by the police and armed forces, as has happened in the past.

Still, the challenge to Mr. Maduro’s authority by Mr. Guaidó raised the possibility of violent confrontations, chaos and confusion in the days ahead. Immediately after Mr. Maduro ordered American diplomats expelled, Mr. Guaidó announced that they could stay.

The American recognition of Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president is far more than a symbolic measure, and presents new complications for Mr. Maduro.

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The escalating showdown began with Mr. Guaidó’s declaration to an enormous crowd of supporters in a downtown square in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, on Wednesday.

As demonstrators sang the national anthem, Mr. Guaidó announced: “Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela.”

He told Venezuelans to raise their right hands as he said: “Let’s swear as brothers that we won’t rest until we gain freedom.

He also told supporters to brace for a fight.

“We know this is not about just one person,” he said. “We know this will have consequences.”

The opposition, after years of division, has largely united behind Mr. Guaidó. He called for the protests and has offered to lead a transitional government and hold new elections if Mr. Maduro stepped down.

The demonstrations are part of a renewed push to oust Mr. Maduro by Venezuela’s opposition, which was left largely powerless and divided after a burst of antigovernment activism in 2017 was crushed by security forces. The opposition was hoping that a significant turnout on Wednesday would help persuade the nation’s military to break ranks with the president, which would be crucial to removing him.

Opposition leaders also hope the effort to force out Mr. Maduro, who was sworn in for a second term on Jan. 10, has a better chance of succeeding now because his government is collapsing under the weight of an economic crisis and is more isolated than ever.

The United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors have called the president an illegitimate dictator and signaled strong support for a plan to establish a transitional government.

On Wednesday afternoon, soon after Mr. Trump made his announcement supporting Mr. Guaidó, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement saying the United States would “work closely with the legitimately elected National Assembly to facilitate the transition of Venezuela back to democracy and the rule of law.”

Mr. Pompeo urged Venezuela’s military and security forces to “support democracy and protect all Venezuelan citizens,” basically exhorting them to abandon Mr. Maduro. In a separate statement, he said the United States would defy Mr. Maduro’s order to have its diplomatic personnel leave the country, saying “we will conduct our relations with Venezuela through the government of interim President Guaido, who has invited our mission to remain.”

(…)

Discontent has deepened across Venezuela’s socioeconomic classes as hyperinflation has rendered wages virtually worthless. Citizens of what was once one of the region’s wealthiest nations, endowed with plentiful oil, have starved to death and died from preventable diseases.

More than three million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years, and those who stayed have struggled to find food and medicine while contending with water shortages and rampant crime.

Eva Golinger, an American lawyer who was a close friend of the leftist strongman Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, said the government could no longer count on its traditional bastions of support to overpower opposition movements, which in the past were led by wealthy and middle-class Venezuelans.

“The difference this time is that the discontent is not just opposition,” said Ms. Golinger, who wrote a memoir called “Confidante of ‘Tyrants,’ ” about her ties with Venezuelan and other leaders. “In fact, it’s mainly poor people who are tired of going without basic products and earning decent wages.”

Other notable differences include the youth of the politicians now leading the quest to oust Mr. Maduro, and the careful messaging they have deployed.

The opposition’s new leader, Mr. Guaidó, is an industrial engineer little known at home or abroad until this month, when he was sworn in as president of the National Assembly. His appointment reinvigorated that opposition-dominated legislative body, which had become ineffectual and deeply unpopular in recent years.The opposition’s new leader, Mr. Guaidó, is an industrial engineer little known at home or abroad until this month, when he was sworn in as president of the National Assembly. His appointment reinvigorated that opposition-dominated legislative body, which had become ineffectual and deeply unpopular in recent years.

The immediate question going forth for both Maduro and Guaidó will be where the nation’s military and police forces, who have been known to step into domestic politics in the past, end up standing in this dispute. So far, the forces and, most importantly, their leaders, appear to be staying loyal to Maduro, but it’s unclear if that could change if the protests continue and Maduro orders them to respond more violently to unarmed civilians. Additionally, it’s not clear how the rank-and-file members of the military and how lower-ranking officers might respond to such moves. There have also been several indications of opposition in the military since Maduro won a controversial election to a second term early last year. In August of last year, for example, Maduro was the apparent target of a drone attack at a military parade, although there have been some who suggested that the event was staged by the government to draw out opposition members of the military. These suspicions were further stoked when several members of the military were arrested in connection with the attack just a week or so later.

The other complicating issue, of course, is how the Trump Administration might respond to all of this. The fact that the White House recognized Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela is not surprising and is largely consistent with the policy that has been in place since George W. Bush’s Administration. At the same time, though, it is somewhat concerning given the fact that Trump has, as is his habit, has upped the rhetoric since taking office and suggested far more radical action than his predecessors. In August of 2017, for example, Trump suggested that a ‘military option’ was on the table with regard to American policy toward the Maduro regime. Last September, we learned that American representatives had met with Venezuelan coup plotters. Although nothing came of those talks, as I suggested at the time the news was nonetheless significant due to the uptick in confrontational rhetoric from the Trump Administration. Because of this, how the U.S. responds to these latest developments bears watching, especially if the President becomes tempted to lash out at a new target as his situation at home becomes more and more politically perilous.

As if all that weren’t enough, Russia is warning the United States against interference in Venezuelan affairs:

MOSCOW — Russia accused the United States on Thursday of promoting regime change in Venezuela, warning of the “catastrophic” consequences of destabilizing one of the Kremlin’s key South American allies.

Moscow’s warning came a day after the Trump administration recognized an opposition leader as Venezuela’s legitimate president, outraging President Nicolás Maduro, who ordered all American diplomats expelled. The United States said it would ignore the expulsion order and did not rule out a military intervention in the oil-rich country, where economic hardship and political repression have escalated into a major crisis.

“Any external intervention is very dangerous,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, told reporters in Moscow. “We consider the attempt to usurp the top power in Venezuela as going against the foundations and principles of the international law.”

Moscow has been a close ally of Venezuela for more than a decade, shoring up the country’s crumbling economy with billions of dollars in loans as well as military support.

This warning isn’t likely to restrain the Trump Administration, both because of the fact that a hard line toward the Maduro regime, and the regime of Hugo Chavez before it, has been a hallmark of conservative foreign policy for years now and the White House is unlikely to deviate from that. Additionally, the U.S. is being backed in its position by several nations in Central and South America as well as the Organization of American States, backing that gives the current position a level of credibility that it otherwise wouldn’t have. Nonetheless, the interjection of the Russians into all of this is yet another complication that will have interesting implications going forward.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Latin America, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Well…will Trump back down the face of Putin’s ire? It hardly seems to matter if opposition to Maduro and before him Chavez has been a hallmark of conservative foreign policy, since Trump has no ideology apart from his own self-interest. And Trump has a well-documented history of catering to Putin. Most recent example: the statement about pulling out of Syria. Mattis hated the idea; Putin thought it was swell.

  2. CSK says:

    OT: The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Michael Cohen.

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  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @CSK:

    The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed Michael Cohen.

    I imagine Lanny Davis knew this would happen and is simply using it as theatre.
    It does trouble me that Individual-1 is witness tampering and obstructing justice in plain view and there is no accountability for it.

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  4. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    El Cheeto is looking at a tough one. On the one hand, sugar daddy Putin and Erdogan is supporting Maduro. On the other hand, so are China, Cuba, and Iran. But on the gripping hand, Mistress Anne will be pissed if he picks the wrong option, like she was with the wall.

    I bet that’s his entire calculus. Not what’s best for US interests, not what’s best for the people of Venezuela, and not what’s best for the region as a whole.

    Me, I’d take the matter up to the UN, pledge full moral support and material aid. And make damn sure if any mention of troops is brought up, to point at Brazil, Argentina, Peru and the rest.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Between the Russia issue, and the amount of oil Venezuela exports, this has the potential to blow up into Individual-1’a first foreign policy test.We all know he is not up to the task. It’s only a question of how badly he fvcks this up.

  6. CSK says:

    @Kathy:

    Trump tries to please his base, and I’m not sure if the Trumpkins are really aware of Venezuela or, if they are, they regard it as important. Coulter, so far, seems not to give a damn.

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    Tough to be a Democratic Party hack today, feigning outrage over one country interfering in the politics of another while Donald Trump attacks a country Obama labeled a threat to American national security.

  8. dazedandconfused says:

    Pompeo is playing with real fire here:

    http://time.com/5512374/us-embassy-venezuela-maduro-military-standoff/

    President Nicolas Maduro quickly severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. on Wednesday after Donald Trump publicly backed the opposition’s Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of Venezuela and gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to Maduro by saying the U.S. doesn’t recognize his authority and therefore won’t pull its staff, prompting Diosdado Cabello, a close Maduro ally, to make the threatening comments.

    Italics are mine. This is all but an invitation to go into the embassy and toss them out, casus belli for military action. Pompeo has to know this, he absolutely has to.

    It appears the Venezuelans are hip to this, fortunately, they’ve cut the power and can be expected to cut the water soon too. That should force Pompeo to get them out of there.

    Main point is the act of refusing to remove embassy personnel is an indication of this administration’s intent. The Trumps are looking for a fight.