No matter how you slice it, an attempted coup is underway in Venezuela. Here are the basics: On Wednesday, Juan Guaidó, a relatively unknown second-string politician from the right-wing Popular Will party, simply declared himself acting president. Guaidó was not elected president—Nicolás Maduro was, in May of last year in a vote that the opposition might have won had they not boycotted it. Guaidó was elected to the opposition-controlled National Assembly, recently assuming the Assembly presidency through an informal power-sharing agreement among the opposition’s political parties. One poll even suggests that as recently as a week ago, more than 80 percent of Venezuelans had no idea who Guaidó even was.
So call it what you want: attempted regime change, a putsch, a “soft” coup—the military hasn’t supported it—just don’t call it constitutional. The opposition strategy is based on Article 233 of the Constitution, which grants the National Assembly the power to declare a president’s “abandonment” of the office. Of course, the kicker is that Maduro hasn’t done anything of the sort, and only the Supreme Court can disqualify sitting presidents. Despite cries of dictatorship, the opposition did win the last election they contested—taking over the Assembly in late 2015 and using their platform to try to overthrow Maduro.
When the Assembly insisted on seating legislators charged with election fraud, the Supreme Court declared the legislature in contempt, and we have since seen a tit-for-tat standoff between the legislature and judiciary. To break the deadlock, Maduro called elections to a National Constituent Assembly, as Article 348 of the Constitution empowers him to do. The opposition boycotted those elections, citing unfair electoral conditions, and handed victory to Chavismo. When Maduro was up for reelection last year, most again refused to participate.
Despite Guaidó’s brazenly unconstitutional power grab, right-wing governments across Latin America and beyond have recognized him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. In a video released last week, US Vice President Mike Pence, in terrible Spanish, preemptively expressed the Trump regime’s support for Venezuela’s opposition forces, effectively urging them to act. This is no surprise; Trump has made no secret of his hostility toward Maduro, and his meetings with disloyal Venezuelan military officers have been well-documented.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen it before: The Venezuelan opposition is no stranger to coups, like the brief, US-backed ouster of Hugo Chávez in 2002, or the political violence it has unleashed in the streets continuously since 2013. And it didn’t start with Trump, either: As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton supported a 2009 coup in Honduras that unleashed terror and helped spark a migrant exodus. The United States has since overseen a rightward shift across the hemisphere, whether through elections in Argentina, Guatemala, and Chile, or so-called “soft” coups in Paraguay and Brazil. The latter paved the way for the recent election of Jair Bolsonaro, an open admirer of Brazil’s bloody military dictatorship who celebrated Guaidó’s attempted coup in the name of democracy.
It’s clear that Trump cares about as much about everyday Venezuelans as he cares about the migrant families at the border—his sanction regime has thrown the Venezuelan economy into a tailspin and heaped suffering upon the poorest. But while establishment Democrats hyperventilate over Russian meddling in US elections, it is doubtful that many will say a word about this far more direct and dangerous attempt at regime change.
In the coming days, the diplomatic standoff will prove decisive. In response to Trump and Pence’s overt meddling, Maduro broke off relations with the United States and has expelled American diplomats. Trump, however, has refused to recognize Maduro’s authority to do so, and while it would be understandable for Venezuela to detain the diplomatic staff in response, this would give Trump the pretext he needs for a “military option,” which he has threatened in the past. Among Venezuelans, Trump’s endorsement will likely do Guaidó more harm than good, making it perfectly clear that he is the candidate of empire.
For the time being, as this standoff deepens, things will only get worse for those who always bear the brunt: the poorest Venezuelans; those who, while deeply frustrated with their government, aren’t likely to trade their hard-won democracy for an unconstitutional coup.