Why go-for-broke uprising in Venezuela is getting loud US support

Why We Wrote This

The Monroe Doctrine, the 19th-century U.S. policy declaring “hands off!” to other powers in Western Hemisphere affairs, is seeing new life in the Trump administration. But is it a stand for democracy, or U.S. hegemony over its “backyard?”

Manaure Quintero/Reuters
Soliders tie blue arm bands on each other in support of Juan Guaidó’s ‘Operation Liberty’ near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase ‘La Carlota,’ in Caracas, Venezuela, April 30.

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Announcing the “final phase” of what he dubbed Operation Liberty, Juan Guaidó called on Venezuelans to rise up en masse to join him and the military, which he aimed to demonstrate is now on his side, in wresting power from the Maduro regime.

But despite clashes between opposing groups on the streets of the capital, Caracas, it did not appear that large segments of the military were jumping to support the opposition. Another key element is the degree of U.S. support for Mr. Guaidó’s bold move – and whether or not it remains rhetorical and diplomatic.

The proactive U.S. support for a democratic transition in Venezuela is something of an anomaly for an administration that otherwise has downplayed democracy while praising authoritarian rulers as promoters of stability. But the administration has carved out an exception in the case of Latin America, insisting that democratic rule (and not socialist governance) is the regional standard the U.S. will promote and defend.

What is clear is that this time is different. If Mr. Guaidó’s move fails, the entrenched Maduro regime will almost certainly act to snuff out the elements behind what it declared Tuesday a U.S.-backed “coup” attempt.

In an early morning tweet in support of the boldest attempt yet by Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s self-declared “legitimate president,” to seize power, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio issued a do-or-die message to the South American country’s beleaguered people.

“Do not allow this moment to slip away,” he admonished. “It may not come again.”

The Republican senator, who has been a fervent instigator of and cheerleader for the Trump administration’s monthslong campaign to replace the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro with Mr. Guaidó, may very well be right.

Ever since Mr. Guaidó declared himself interim president in January, the youthful opposition leader has been campaigning for Venezuela’s traumatized population to join him in taking their country back from Mr. Maduro’s failing and increasingly authoritarian governance.

But his video statement from a Caracas military base early Tuesday morning, with uniformed soldiers (and significantly, prominent opposition leader Leopoldo López, who was supposed to be under house arrest) at his side, had the feel of a go-for-broke stand.

Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, were all quick to hail Mr. Guaidó’s action Tuesday and to reaffirm U.S. support for the opposition’s efforts to topple President Maduro. 

“Democracy will not be defeated!” Secretary Pompeo tweeted.

The proactive U.S. support for a democratic transition in Venezuela is something of an anomaly for an administration that otherwise has downplayed democracy promotion while praising authoritarian rulers in the Middle East and elsewhere as promoters of stability.

But the administration, led by Mr. Bolton, has carved out an exception in the case of Latin America, insisting that democratic rule (and not socialist governance) is the regional standard the United States will promote and defend.

In comments to the White House press Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Bolton described the day’s events as a potentially decisive moment in “the effort of the Venezuelan people to regain their freedom.”

In addition, he called on senior officials within the Maduro government, including the defense minister, to act “this afternoon or this evening to bring other military forces to the side of the interim president.”

Big power competition

Some international relations experts see not so much a firm stand for democracy in the U.S. sanctions and other actions targeting the Maduro government as they do evidence of resurgent big-power competition across the globe.

In that scenario, the U.S. is claiming its hegemony over its “backyard” in much the same way Russia is moving to reassert its influence and control over adjacent, former Soviet republics such as Ukraine.

On Tuesday the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned Mr. Guaidó and opposition forces for attempting to “incite conflict.”

Manaure Quintero/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, and fellow opposition leader Leopoldo López address a crowd of supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, April 30.

In his morning announcement of the “final phase” of what he has dubbed “Operation Liberty,” Mr. Guaidó called on Venezuelans to rise up en masse beginning Wednesday to join him and the military, which he was aiming to demonstrate is now on his side, in wresting power from the Maduro regime.

But despite clashes between opposing groups on the streets of the capital, Caracas, in which dozens of people were reported hurt, and dramatic footage of confrontations and wafting tear gas, it did not appear that large segments of the military – since the beginning the key to resolution of the Maduro-Guaidó standoff – were jumping to the opposition’s side.

“The symbolism of those uniformed members of the military flanking Guaidó as he spoke is important, not least for the measure of hope it gives the supporters of the democratic transition the opposition is working toward,” says Paula Garcia Tufro, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center in Washington.

“But my realistic appraisal is that we’re still not seeing enough of the highest ranks of the military abandon the Maduro regime to say the weight has shifted,” she says. “A big part of the calculus” going on within the military “is at what point do they believe the democratic transition will be sustained,” she adds, “and we may get a better idea of that in the coming days” of national protests.

Repercussions for ‘coup’

What is clear, however, is that this time is different. If Mr. Guaidó’s move fails, the entrenched Maduro regime will almost certainly act to snuff out the elements behind what it declared Tuesday is a U.S.-backed “coup” attempt.

A campaign would likely be launched to cleanse the military of elements siding with Mr. Guaidó, regional experts say. Additional repressive measures could be taken against opposition forces – including potentially Mr. Guaidó – they add, although the government would likely avoid turning Mr. Guaidó into a martyr.

“We’re going to see a continued purging of the military institution in the aftermath of this stand by Guaidó, and if anything it’s likely to be stepped up,” says Brian Fonseca, director of Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy in Miami.

“What I don’t expect to see is the Maduro government coming down hard on Guaidó. I think they understand it wouldn’t be in their interest. If Guaidó falls flat,” he adds, “he will already be showing his weakness.”

The key to the turn of events over the coming days will be “the level of the depth of the military backing of today’s action by Guaidó,” says Professor Fonseca, an expert in Venezuela’s military.

“If Guaidó is unable to demonstrate he’s marshalling the forces he came out today and declared he has behind him, both he and the opposition movement are going to be demonstrating more than anything else that they lack credibility,” he says. “And so far there’s no real indication of the degree of fracturing in the military institution that Guaidó seemed to be claiming there is.”

Ms. Garcia Tufro agrees that Mr. Maduro may not move immediately against Mr. Guaidó, but she says at some point “the Maduro regime will cease allowing him the freedom of movement he has had until now.”

What worries her more in the short term, she adds, is the risk of increasingly harsh repression by the Maduro government of protesters and deserting military elements and “mass arrests.” Noting the large number of small arms in Venezuela and the number of armed irregular defense groups, she says the potential for “deterioration of security” across Venezuela is growing.

Nature of US support

Another key element is likely to be the degree of U.S. support for Mr. Guaidó’s bold move – and whether or not it remains rhetorical and diplomatic, in the form of economic sanctions and coordination with Venezuela’s South American neighbors.

This month Mr. Bolton declared that the Monroe Doctrine is “alive and well,” referring to the 19th-century U.S. policy declaring “hands off!” to other powers intervening in the Western Hemisphere’s affairs. Over recent decades the doctrine took on a pejorative image of Yankee imperialism, but Mr. Bolton appeared to be promoting a revised vision of the doctrine as a regional pact of democratic governance.

“The twilight of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere,” he proclaimed.

Mr. Bolton’s declaration met with stiff criticism from Russia, which scoffed at a revived Monroe Doctrine as a throwback and insisted that Russia and other global actors will continue to engage at will with Latin American countries.

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