Swearing before God Almighty to “assume formally the powers of the national executive as President of Venezuela,” Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the opposition-led National Assembly, looked out from a podium at thousands of cheering supporters in Caracas on Wednesday. He would end the “usurpation” of the office by President Nicolás Maduro, he declared.
So, now Venezuelans have two governments.
Just minutes after Guaido spoke, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence went on television to give the Trump administration’s blessing to the new self-proclaimed interim leader, calling Maduro “a dictator with no legal power” and endorsing “the courageous decision of Juan Guaido.”
Hours later, Maduro appeared on the balcony of the presidential Palacio de Miraflores in Caraca to tell thousands of his supporters that the opposition’s attempted political coup was the the work of the U.S.
“We’ve had enough interventionism! Here we have dignity, damn it!” Maduro declared, announcing he’d immediately cut ties with the U.S., ordering the ambassador and all diplomatic personnel to leave the country within 72 hours.
Since Monday anti-government protestors had begun staging protests to mark the 61st anniversary the overthrow of Venezuela’s last dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez. The protests spread like wildfire throughout the country.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in Latin America,” Michael Shifter, president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, told The Daily Beast.
How much of it is spontaneous is hard to say. The country is suffering from hyperinflation, massive shortages, political repression, pervasive petty corruption and massive involvement with Latin American drug mafias. Millions of its people have concluded the only way they can lead a decent life, or survive at all, is to get the hell out.
But efforts by Washington to stage manage the removal of Maduro are not exactly hidden. Pence’s instant endorsement of Guaido was one sure sign. So was the rapidity with which many other governments chimed in from Europe and in Latin America. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech on Thursday that dotted some I’s and crossed some T’s.
“The time for debate is done,” he said, declaring Maduro’s regime “morally bankrupt” and “undemocratic to the core.”
”I repeat: the government of former President Nicolás Maduro is illegitimate.” The word that bore the repetition being “former,” of course.
Pompeo called on Venezuelan security forces to assure Guaido’s safety and that of the anti-Maduro demonstrators. He said the U.S. stands ready to provide $20 million to redress Venezuela’s food and medicine shortage.
One might note that is absurdly low given the level of suffering in the country, and the height of Washington’s evident ambitions to topple the Maduro regime. But that fits, in fact, a long and painful pattern in Washington’s dealings with Venezuela under the “revolutionary” and “Bolivarian” regime first established by the leftist populist President Hugo Chávez in the '90s.
In some respects this seems a re-run of a failed coup attempt against Chávez in January 2002, when the nation was convulsed by an international oil crisis that plunged it into economic chaos and the George W. Bush administration hoped the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s devoted ally could be brought to an end.
For weeks, millions of people had taken to the streets as the opposition vied with Chavistas to see who could field the biggest, most eye-catching demonstrations. A group of dissident military officers made their move, but overplayed their hand and lost the initiative. People rallied to the defense of Chávez, and he survived, continuing to rule the country by staging popular referendums.
It was widely rumored then that the U.S. had a hand in the the failed attempt and ever since 2002 it has been obvious the U.S. wanted to see the end of Venezuela’s socialist regimes, but to no avail. Mutual expulsions of diplomats became the norm, as well as freezing assets, under the Obama administration. But didn’t get much beyond that.
Venezuela has the world’s largest petroleum reserves—more, even, than Saudi Arabia—and when oil prices were high in the late aughts, Chávez could buy peace as he spread the wealth around among his people. His largesse also benefited friendly Latin American regimes, and for ideological reasons as well Venezuela was surrounded by sympathetic neighbors who made it clear they opposed U.S. intervention.
But by the time Chávez died of cancer in 2013, the Venezuelan economy was facing a vertiginous downturn. Maduro, Chavez’s chosen successor, was a man with little charisma, bad ideas about governance, and no luck. For the past five years, the economy has been in freefall.
“Maduro inherited an impossible situation,” says Shifter. Although Maduro tried to continue Chávez’s controversial social programs, his government suffered from outright mismanagement and increased corruption. “Criminality is prominent” says Shifter, pointing to Venezuela’s heightened role in drug trafficking and countless other illicit activities.
Enter the Trump administration. In Maduro, Trump finally seems to have found a tyrant he doesn’t like, and his government has made no secret of its desire to see Maduro toppled, and a rightward shift among newly elected leaders in Latin America has helped pave the way. Earlier this month, Pompeo toured the region, apparently to organize and galvanize support for the initiative, and Brazil under its new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has become a staunch supporter of the anti-Maduro, anti-Chavista campaign.
Trump imposed strict economic sanctions in August 2017, not just aimed at the government but also the state-owned petroleum consortium, PEDEVESA, effectively curtailing Venezuela’s ability to access the global credit market to import indispensable materials for all sectors, not just oil, but medicines, and other crucial goods.
We should not be surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped in to take advantage of the situation. As The Washington Post noted last month, Russia now owns major parts of five oil fields and 30 years of future production from two of Venezuela’s natural gas fields. Even more conspicuously, Maduro signed over almost 50 percent of Citgo, its wholly owned company in the United States, as collateral for a Russian loan of a reported $1.5 billion. After Guaido’s announcement, the Kremlin was quick to throw its support behind Maduro.
Meanwhile, in recent years millions of Venezuelans have moved into neighboring countries, voting against the Maduro regime with their feet.
Back in 2002, as Shifter points out, the opposition was dominated by pot-banging members of the bourgeoisie, but these days—a crucial difference—it cuts across all strata of society. “It’s not just the middle class, it’s much broader and much deeper,” says Shifter.
At what point does all this activity actually bring down Maduro?
Naturally all eyes are on Venezuela’s military, which has consistently stood by its leaders and continues to do so. The senior officers are are a cabal of their own—some say a cartel—with many of the most important positions held by those deeply involved with drug trafficking. As The Daily Beast reported last summer, the persistent, pervasive help of Cuban intelligence operatives helps them root out dissidents in the ranks.
“The military is a black box,” says Shifter. Unless and until it makes a move, the future of Venezuela looks very grim indeed. And if it does, nobody can be sure what will come out.
Spencer Ackerman and Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this story.