A year on, Juan Guaidó’s attempt at regime change in Venezuela has stalled
An underestimation of Chavismo’s resilience means the US-backed drive to topple Nicolás Maduro has fizzled out
‘There has been a through-the-looking-glass aspect to much coverage of Venezuela over the past year, as if the reality were simply whatever the opposition said it was.’
Photograph: Carolina Cabral
A year ago, on 23 January 2019, Juan Guaidó, chairman of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled national assembly, proclaimed himself president of the country and vowed to remove Nicolás Maduro from power. Guaidó’s pretender government was swiftly recognised by the Trump administration, as well as by the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Brazil, and eventually some 50 countries in total. As street protests flared in Caracas, it seemed to many outside Venezuela that Maduro’s days in office were numbered – and with them those of Chavismo, the radical left-populist movement that first surged to power in 1998 under Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Yet, one year on, Maduro remains firmly ensconced in the presidential Miraflores Palace. And not only has the US-backed attempt at regime change failed to dislodge him, but it is now Guaidó’s position at the head of the Venezuelan opposition that is looking shaky.
Why did predictions of Maduro’s imminent departure prove so ill-founded? The mismatch was partly the product of wishful thinking on the part of international establishment opinion. There has been a through-the-looking-glass aspect to much coverage of Venezuela over the past year, as if the reality were simply whatever the opposition said it was, rather than a political struggle it was the media’s job to analyse and explain. But it is also clear that the US-sponsored drive towards regime change in Venezuela was premised on a series of miscalculations.
It was based, firstly, on an overestimation of the popular appeal of the Venezuelan opposition. A fringe politician before being elevated to the chairmanship of the national assembly, Guaidó was always something of an ersatz figurehead, better at cultivating a following on Twitter than among ordinary Venezuelans. The confrontational strategy advocated by Guaidó and his political mentor, Leopoldo López, was in part designed precisely to compensate for their lack of a broad support base, ratcheting up the pressure so the situation more closely matched the fever pitch of their anti-Chavista rhetoric.
After failing to topple Maduro last January as planned, other debacles followed, notably an abortive army putsch on 30 April. This effort was very clearly concerted with US officials, including John Bolton, then national security adviser, who lamented that senior Venezuelan officials who were supposed to have changed sides had not done so. This pointed to another major miscalculation: the opposition had clearly exaggerated the degree of discontent with Maduro within the army, and officials in Washington either didn’t know better or didn’t care to question this misleading view.
But perhaps the biggest miscalculation of all, both by the Venezuelan opposition and the Trump administration, was to underestimate the resilience of Chavismo. Amid a desperate economic situation, and with a population suffering from unemployment, hunger and police repression, Maduro’s popularity had plummeted, his support dwindling even in loyal constituencies. Yet discontent with Maduro was one thing; getting behind the Venezuelan opposition quite another. The fact of US backing for Guaidó’s coup attempt was itself a major factor in rallying support for Maduro: Venezuelans have good reasons to hesitate before opting for a government glued together in Miami and Washington.
Once the initial drive for regime change fizzled out, the Venezuelan opposition camp also ran into other problems. Last June two of Guaidó’s aides were mired in a corruption scandal, and more sleaze came to the surface in December over ties between nine Venezuelan opposition members and a Colombian businessman who was facing US sanctions. Another dent to Guaidó’s image came in September when photographs surfaced of him alongside members of one of Colombia’s rightwing paramilitary groups.
But the most damaging blow came on 5 January 2020, when the national assembly voted to replace Guaidó as chair with a rival oppositionist, Luis Parra. This deprived Guaidó of his already slender constitutional claim to the de facto presidency. Accounts of what happened next are highly contested: Guaidó claims he was barred from entering the national assembly, and was filmed climbing the fence that surrounds the building; other opposition deputies, however, reportedly entered freely, and many of them voted for Parra. Later that day, Guaidó held a parallel vote in the offices of an opposition newspaper, El Nacional, that reinstated him as national assembly chair. A week later, on 13 January, the US made its feelings clear by imposing sanctions on several opposition deputies who had voted for Parra, as well as on Parra himself.
Behind these manoeuvres lies a highly significant division within the opposition, between those still committed to regime change at all costs and those willing to negotiate with Maduro to find some kind of political solution to Venezuela’s crisis. Guaidó represents the former group, but with the regime-change strategy stalled, the initiative last year began to shift to the latter camp.
In May 2019 and again in July, talks brokered by Norway were held between representatives of Maduro and the opposition. It was partly to break the momentum of these talks that the Trump administration announced a new and even more punitive round of sanctions last August. Aimed at tightening the screws on the Maduro government, they amount, like all sanctions, to collective punishment for the entire population, and have undoubtedly made an already dire situation much worse.
The sanctions are also unlikely to tilt the situation in the opposition’s favour – as the US should have learned from 60 years of failed sanctions on Cuba. On the contrary, Maduro has been boosted by the mere fact of surviving in the face of such pressure. Parts of the opposition seem aware of this and have continued to negotiate with the government, with one eye on parliamentary elections due to be held by the end of 2020. Guaidó still has the backing of the US and more than 50 other governments, including Brazil and Colombia, both major regional players. On the anniversary of his previous attempt, he is now trying to reinvigorate his push for regime change, having crossed over to Colombia to meet the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on 20 January. But there is little reason to think it will work any better this time.
What does the situation in Venezuela tell us about the outlook for Latin America as a whole? Coming hot on the heels of Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil in 2018, and of successes earlier that year for the right in Colombia and Chile, Guaidó’s attempted coup seemed set to confirm a decisive swing to the right in the region. Yet Maduro’s surprising endurance has bucked that trend, and while the November 2019 coup against Evo Morales in Bolivia reaffirmed the rightward shift, there have also been countervailing tendencies: Bolsonaro’s slumping approval ratings, President Mauricio Macri’s defeat in Argentina, Chile’s continuing constitutional emergency, and mass anti-government protests in Colombia. There is no doubting that the right has been on the rise in Latin America. But its ascendancy is far from consolidated – and in this uncertain interregnum, much remains to be decided.
• Tony Wood is an author who specialises in Latin America and Russia. His latest book is Russia Without Putin
US foreign policy
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This post was originally posted on Venezuela | The Guardian – View Original Article