On February 4, more than a dozen European countries recognized the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate president. This decision came almost two weeks after the United States, Canada, and most countries in Latin America backed Guaidó’s claim to the presidential office. Despite continued Chinese and Russian support for Nicolás Maduro’s government, the international community is quickly isolating it, as never before.
A strange coalition of left- and right-wing political parties has formed to assist Guaidó, and knee-jerk support from both pundits and politicians who profess concern about the country’s humanitarian crisis has generated an allegiance to this little-known politician and his call for Maduro’s resignation. Many of Guaidó’s supporters have cited Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution as grounds for his assumption of the presidency, arguing that the unfair nature of the 2018 presidential election has rendered the Maduro government illegitimate.
There is no question that Venezuelans are suffering and want to see a change in governance. Maduro is wildly unpopular, even among the working class, and many have grown tired of the economic crisis that has exploded under his watch. This doesn’t mean, though, that citizens necessarily support the opposition or, worse, US military intervention. Many continue to identify as chavista, and even those who have shed this identification continue to acknowledge that the Bolivarian Revolution once improved their livelihoods. Those improvements, though, have largely evaporated under Maduro.
Since some of the most powerful countries in the world have now decided to back Guaidó, there is good reason to ask who he is, what sort of future he represents for Venezuela, and whether domestic support for Guaidó’s call for Maduro’s resignation equals support for him as leader of the country.
Maduro might not possess widespread legitimacy, but his government retains control of much of the state apparatus and remains far more entrenched than many opposition members and their supporters would like to believe. In many ways, chavismo remains dominant and has reshaped Venezuelan society. Whether they like it or not, the opposition will not be able to entirely overturn the legacy of the Bolivarian Revolution or erase the fondness that many citizens still have for the late Hugo Chávez and the policies he implemented as president. Some members of the opposition seem to realize this.
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There should not be any doubt, though, about what the United States, alongside other countries within and beyond the Western Hemisphere, are pushing for in Venezuela: a military overthrow of the Maduro government. The situation is messy, and there are multiple interpretations concerning the origins of the political-economic crisis in Venezuela, as well as how to solve the political crisis and reboot the Venezuelan economy. But Washington and its allies seem intent on some basic interventionist strategies. Nearly every day over the past two weeks, both National Security Adviser John Bolton and Republican Senator Marco Rubio have used their Twitter accounts to call on the military to align with Guaidó, “defend democracy,” and oust Maduro.
For now, the United States has seemed to settle for imposing harsh sanctions on Venezuela that portend economic catastrophe. These sanctions target the lifeblood of the economy: the state oil company (PDVSA) and its sales to the United States. The aim, of course, is to weaken Maduro’s position by taking away the government’s most important source of revenue. But this could very easily backfire. Venezuelan citizens might blame the United States for worsening the economic crisis, though it won’t automatically translate into support for Maduro. And it certainly won’t help build support for international mediation or fondness for the United States on the part of most Venezuelans.
If these sanctions do break the government, it is likely some portion of the population will feel that whatever comes next is the product of coercion. If the opposition centered around Guaidó then wins a presidential election, that government may face questions regarding its own legitimacy. Even for many who do not support Maduro, anti-imperialist sentiments run deep; elections that take place as a result of US strong-arming will be tainted by these dynamics.
Guaidó’s announcement assuming the role of interim president generated a wave of support from some capitals as well as the Organization of American States. Now the crisis is in a stalemate. Indeed, as Francisco Toro notes, the United States, in granting diplomatic recognition to Guaidó’s “government,” has created a precarious situation by confusing a normative judgment about who should run the country with the objective fact of who does run the country—that is, who actually has control over national territory and the state apparatus. If this gamble, this all-or-nothing approach, does not go as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, NSA adviser Bolton, and others hope it will, what will happen in a few weeks, if Maduro remains president? Will Washington continue with economic sanctions and fall into a pattern similar to its decades-long standoff with Cuba? Will it take to exploding cigars and other absurd and criminal plots of subversion?
The United States now has little room to play a constructive role in interim efforts, such as the negotiations proposed by Mexico and Uruguay to bring the two sides to the table. In fact, Washington’s intransigence only bolsters opposition intransigence. Indeed, since January 23, we have seen escalation upon escalation, potentially setting the stage for violent conflict, even civil war.
Washington’s Campaign: ‘Dividing Chavismo’ and ‘Protecting Vital US Business’
Following the opposition’s victory in 2015 parliamentary elections, opposition-party leaders agreed to a rotating cast of leadership within the National Assembly. In 2019, Guaidó, representing the Voluntad Popular party, assumed the position of National Assembly president. Very few know much about the 35-year-old Guaidó. Indeed, a common remark about him from Venezuelans is that he has “come out of nowhere” (viene de la nada).
In fact, Guaidó is from one of the most hard-line political parties among the opposition. While some parties have sought to displace chavismo through an electoral route, Leopoldo López, one of the founders of Voluntad Popular, led protests in 2014—many of which became violent—demanding Maduro’s exit. After Maduro’s first election, in 2013, López justified undemocratic approaches to removing him by declaring his government illegitimate. One of the few things we do know about Guaidó is that López has been one of his political mentors; some have even suggested López is continuing to call the shots while still under house arrest in suburban Caracas.
More than anything else, Guaidó appears to be a product of the right-wing, middle-class student movement that developed in opposition to the Chávez government in the mid-to-late 2000s. This movement, which took to the streets of Caracas to demand the ouster of Chávez, received much of its funding and training from Washington.
The following reporting is based on Tim Gill’s extensive research on US foreign policy toward Venezuela under Chávez, and the ways in which Washington sought to“promote democracy.” Gill conducted interviews with numerous US state actors and members Venezuelan civil society.
Over the course of several years, Washington worked with middle-class, opposition-aligned students through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI). Indeed, OTI often works in war-torn countries that are, as the office’s name indicates, experiencing a “political transition,” such as Burma, Iraq, and Libya. When Gill asked a former high-ranking USAID member why OTI worked in Venezuela, he stated that OTI are “the special forces of the democracy assistance community.” Another USAID functionary told Gill that OTI allowed the United States to provide funds to opposition members in Venezuela faster than if they used traditional channels.
What were the ultimate objectives of USAID/OTI in Venezuela during the years they worked with the student movement? US Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield specifically laid them out in a secret embassy cable secured by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks: “1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”
These efforts initially focused on setting up community groups in working-class neighborhoods, which appeared neutral but were actually operated by opposition activists. Since USAID/OTI could not directly fund political parties, they worked with party leaders, including those from Voluntad Popular, to help opposition activists set up these community groups in neighborhoods where chavistas were predominant. The groups, which claimed to promote and provide training related to participatory democracy, ultimately aimed to put opposition activists in contact with Chávez supporters in an effort to generate chavista support for their political parties. One USAID/OTI contractor who helped to organize these groups in Venezuela explained to Gill:
We even developed new NGOs that were looking very neutral in the eyes of the government; by them we can help people in the poor neighborhoods. They looked neutral because they had no affiliation with no political party. They were people from the neighborhood, even though they were opposition. They create the organizations with no past relation to political parties. So when they worked in the barrios, they looked very neutral. So we gave them money, but they succeeded in helping democratic values. They were pulling people away from Chávez in a subtle manner. We were telling them what democracy is, and showing them what democracy means. We developed very nice materials and took care of every word to give them, so it didn’t look like we were sympathizing with the opposition.
The campaign didn’t work out as planned. Chávez continued to garner support among the popular classes, and many barrio inhabitants eventually caught on that the community groups were organized by the opposition, so most stopped attending.
Thereafter, USAID/OTI largely shifted its efforts toward the burgeoning student movement that developed in the mid-2000s—the movement in which Guaidó “cut his political teeth,” according to a report in The Guardian. A former USAID/OTI member who helped devise US efforts in Venezuela said the “objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids…that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.” In other words, USAID/OTI sought to take advantage of racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him.
How exactly did the United States help these students? One USAID/OTI contractor who worked directly with them on a routine basis revealed to Gill that Washington provided funding and training to the student groups that developed at the same time Guaidó was part of them. This contractor said that for USAID/OTI, the
most successful time was during 2007, when the student movement developed.… The US had a very daring movement and brought a lot of money to the students through OTI, and it grew a lot as a result.… I can say with pride that a lot of people [now] in the Congress—I know them from our projects.… I’m proud. It’s like you see your son and daughter grow up. I knew them when they grew up…the potential leaders when/if there is a change of government, and we were the ones who showed them the first steps.
Washington gave money to these student groups for a number of purposes. As one USAID/OTI employee put it, the funding was for “all the things they needed: microphones, things for presentations, paper.” Another USAID/OTI employee described hosting seminars and courses with student protesters. One employee described the training this way: “what is democracy, what is the vote, all the pillars with the democracy system, to reinforce them, what language they have to use.” However, one USAID worker contended that Washington—albeit not through USAID—was also providing the students with items that could “be used in the street and protect themselves, [such as] masks, but it was not part of open grants.” Although they could not confirm the specific US origins of this assistance, this sort of aid has been used for CIA operations in the past.
While it is unclear what Guaidó’s role was in these groups at the time, it is clear that US “democracy promotion” financed his cohort’s formation and its demonstrations for over a decade. Two of the key actors that USAID/OTI contractors interacted with during this period were Yon Goicoechea and Freddy Guevara, who like Guaidó were from Voluntad Popular. All three have been widely documented in the media as leading student protests against the Chávez government at the same time, putting them in the same organizational circles.
This is not to suggest that Guaidó, Goicoechea, or any other opposition member is merely a puppet of the United States. But it is clear that Guaidó and others in his circle share a worldview and certain goals with the US government. Many of them linked up with US agencies, which provided them with the resources needed to amplify their voices and reach a much larger audience. When Gill asked one USAID/OTI member whether the goal was “to get Chávez out of office,” the member responded, “That was the idea.”
What Does Guaidó Want?
Fast-forward to 2019, when Guaidó is at the forefront of the movement to oust Maduro. As with much of the Venezuelan opposition, though, Guaidó has been vague about his actual policies. On January 30, he presented a “Plan País” at the Central University of Venezuela. But much of this time was spent criticizing what the government has done and talking in generalities about how Guaidó would improve the economy. This included vague references to “stabilizing the economy” and “establishing legal certainty for business.”
A recently released document outlining some of Guaidó’s proposals—accepting much-needed humanitarian aid, eliminating currency controls, and courting private investment—did little to clarify his vision for the future. Still hanging in the air is how Guaidó intends to accomplish these goals. The lack of specificity is at least partly due to the heterogeneity of the opposition coalition, which is composed of former Communist Party members as well as proponents of neoliberalism. But Guaidó’s already cozy relationship with the United States certainly raises concerns that his plans remain vague because they involve massive privatization, the rollback of state services, and other policies that would make Venezuela more “inviting” for foreign investors at the expense of many Venezuelans.
According to a glowing recent article in The New York Times, “While it’s still far from certain that Mr. Guaidó will ever set foot in the presidential palace, the number of ordinary Venezuelans and foreign powers taking his side is growing.” This formulation confuses provisional support for Guaidó as a means of clearing the way for elections with support for Guaidó as president—a dangerous conflation to make in a country where it could take up to one or two years to organize elections. And so far, we still don’t know what Guaidó is more committed to: putting his friends and party members into power, or supporting democratic elections, regardless of the outcome. The only thing we know for sure is that in the short term, he wishes to fully assume the presidency.
Guaidó’s intransigent opposition to negotiations is perhaps another reason to question his motives. Undoubtedly, previous talks have not generated confidence or optimism on either side. In lockstep with the United States and several other countries, Guaidó has asserted that the time for dialogue is over. This position seems to have only encouraged Maduro to dig in his heels.
It’s unlikely the Maduro government will simply calmly step aside and cede the government to Guaidó. High-ranking military members seemingly remain on board with Maduro—maybe because they fear an end to the economic benefits they now receive, or even prosecution under an opposition government. The opposition, for its part, is working to provide an exit ramp for military officers tangled up with the Maduro government. Given this standstill, Guaidó’s resistance to dialogue only moves the needle closer to US military intervention. And his embrace of economic sanctions will hammer the poor before anyone else.
Guaidó’s calls for more protests and military defections, and his actions at the international level (for example, his rush to appoint ambassadors to sympathetic countries) seem designed to bait Maduro into pursuing him legally. Bolton et al. have publicly warned Maduro that actions against Guaidó will have consequences. Clearly, the Iraq War–endorsing national-security adviser and his new colleague—the notorious neocon Elliott Abrams, Trump’s recently appointed special envoy to Venezuela—are eager to assert US political and military dominance over a neighboring country that has irritated Washington for two decades.
Guaidó’s Shaky Support
Over the past few years, discontent with the Maduro government has clearly grown, but we should not conflate that growth in opposition with support for Guaidó. For years, the opposition coalition has asserted that it represents a majority of the country, even as it has ignored the poor and working class. The fact that Guaidó’s mobilizations in Caracas on February 2 were centered in Las Mercedes, one of the richest neighborhoods, does not generate confidence that the opposition has moved beyond its narrow, elitist base. In late January Rebecca Hanson conducted research in Catia, a conglomeration of poor and working-class neighborhoods in west Caracas where she has worked since 2009, on perceptions of the self-proclaimed interim president. She found that even those who voice support for Guaidó do so because he is not Maduro—that is, they support him not for who he is, but for who he isn’t. At most, there may be tentative agreement that Guaidó represents una esperanza (a hope) for a change in government.
It was not excitement about potential change but rather pessimism and hopelessness that characterized one group interview that Hanson organized with women in Los Magallanes, a section of Catia, only 10 days after Guaidó’s proclamation. Though the women participating said that Guaidó offered some hope, this was limited to getting Maduro out of office. Most of them felt that there is no real difference between Maduro and Guaidó, with one fighting to maintain his position in power and the other fighting to seize it. As one participant in the interview put it, the two are in a fight to distribute the spoils of war among their respective inner circle. “You don’t know who to believe”; “I don’t believe in anyone”; and “All politicians want the same thing” were common refrains.
What is more, no one Hanson interviewed was under the illusion that the opposition under Guaidó was different from when it was under López or Henrique Capriles, the opposition’s 2012 and 2013 presidential candidate. In other words, no one was convinced that Guaidó had the interests of the people at heart. These and other conversations suggest that at least some Venezuelans will support Guaidó only, or at least primarily, because they feel they have been backed into a corner, either by Maduro’s incompetence or his unwillingness to make serious economic changes.
Finally, though most Venezuelans may not be aware of the ties between Guaidó’s party and the United States, his uncritical acceptance of US support has filled some with uncertainty about his motives. Some would prefer that he “put his house in order” without outside intervention—that he demonstrate his ability to generate support within Venezuela. For others, his very public endorsement of the United States recalls memories of Venezuela’s status decades ago, during the cuarta republica, when “our oil was not our own,” as chavistas that Hanson has conducted research with often say. Still others worry that Venezuela is being sold off bit by bit to Russia and China. The choice between Guaidó and Maduro could, sadly, end up being a question of which empire to serve.
No Peace Without Chavismo
At the international level, the stars have surely aligned for Guaidó and the opposition, with right-wing allies like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States now in power. Yet the Venezuelan government has fended off international intervention before. Hugo Chávez survived Bush and his overt support for the 2002 coup (as well as former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his saber rattling). However, in earlier years, the so-called Latin American Pink Tide, with leftist governments in countries like Ecuador and Brazil, gave Venezuela firm regional allies. This is no longer the case.
True, Maduro does retain the support of China and Russia. Over the past decade they have supplied Venezuela with shipments of missiles, advanced aircraft, and tanks, which have shored up a sizable military. This could make a US invasion more complicated than what the Pentagon faced in Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989, two military forays that Trump and others often reference in defense of this possibility.
The only real hope for a peaceful outcome lies in dialogue. Given that many citizens do not trust either Maduro or Guaidó, the two sides would need to make serious gestures toward working together to resolve both the economic and political crisis. This would require that Guaidó walk back his refusal to participate in negotiations. A few global actors like Mexico and Uruguay understand this and have urged the government and opposition to sit down and work out a plan for the future.
Dialogue is a much better option than the current US plan to starve Venezuelans into revolt by applying crippling economic sanctions. Have US elites learned nothing from the experience of Cuba, Iran, or Zimbabwe? These economies limped on, and their leaders clung to state power for decades, despite sanctions. Far from damaging US foes, sanctions have primarily taken their toll on the citizens they were allegedly designed to liberate.
Guaidó could invest less time in courting international actors and more time winning over sectors in Venezuela that have traditionally supported chavismo. For example, he could take a page from the playbook of Henrique Capriles, who announced during his 2012 presidential campaign that social programs like Barrio Adentro, which provided free health care in popular sectors, should not only be maintained but improved and extended. Although Guaidó has criticized militarized police raids that have killed hundreds in poor neighborhoods, the Guaidó-led opposition has remained silent about how their government would protect the rights and well-being of the poor, suggesting that it has yet to concede that these sectors, the majority of the population, must be the priority of any future government. Given the high level of discontent with the Maduro government, this is a luxury he can probably afford—in the short term. Eventually, however, he will need to put forward a platform demonstrating that the poor and working-class sectors will not end up bearing the brunt of the transition if he wishes to secure their support.
Decoupling humanitarian aid from political interests could also demonstrate that Guaidó isn’t just focused on gaining power. The Red Cross has already cautioned the United States about the dangers of sending aid to Venezuela if it is not “shielded” from politics and does not have the approval of Venezuelan authorities. Humanitarian aid should not be a bargaining chip, and using it as such contributes to the perception that the battle Guaidó is waging is for power, not el pueblo. Finally, and not least, Guaidó should put forward a concrete plan for new elections, guaranteeing the participation of chavista candidates. There is no political future in Venezuela without chavista participation, and, one way or another, the opposition and chavismo will eventually need to work together toward a new future.