For the first time in many months, Venezuela’s dictator Nicolás Maduro finds himself on the defensive as a newly invigorated opposition mounts an internationally backed effort to restore democracy. It may be Venezuela’s last chance to avoid becoming another Cuba.
President Trump, alongside the leaders of Brazil, Colombia, and other Latin American democracies, could help expedite Maduro’s ouster if they move fast and declare Juan Guaidó — president of the country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly — as the acting president of Venezuela.
That could set off a series of potentially devastating events for the Maduro regime.
The Venezuelan opposition’s new momentum started around Jan. 10, when Maduro took office for a second six-year term, and most Latin American democracies, the United States and the 28-country European Union declared his presidency “illegitimate.”
Most of these countries argued that since they had already declared Venezuela’s May 20, 2018, elections a sham, they could not recognize Maduro’s second-term as valid.
They also said — accurately — that the National Assembly is the only democratic institution left in Venezuela, its members elected by a landslide in relatively free elections in 2015. Maduro has since stripped it from most of its powers, but has stopped short of closing it down by force.
This week, Guaidó, 35, invoked the Venezuelan Constitution’s Article 233 to say that Maduro has been a “usurper” of the presidency since Jan. 10 and hinted that he will proclaim himself acting president to convene a free election.
Under Article 233, when the presidency is vacant, the National Assembly president takes office temporarily until new elections are held.
But Guaidó, so far, has not formally taken the oath of office and he has only tacitly indicated that he will do it soon.
While some hardliners in the Venezuelan opposition are urging him to form a parallel government immediately, Guaidó — and his political mentor, jailed opposition leader Leopoldo López — are waiting for, among other things, a mass demonstration they have called for Jan. 23. They hope that escalating domestic and international pressures will make Guaidó’s swearing-in ceremony more effective.
Meantime, Brazil, Canada and the chief of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, already have indicated that they consider Guaidó the legitimate president of Venezuela. The Trump administration has not yet been that explicit. Vice President Mike Pence said, “We congratulate, recognize and support” the National Assembly’s decision to declare Maduro an “usurper.”
Among the series of events that could unfold if Guaidó formally proclaims himself caretaker president:
Guaidó could start appointing ambassadors in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina and other key countries that support him. Most of these countries would probably recognize his envoys, and evict Maduro’s ambassadors.
Granted, Maduro would immediately arrest Guaidó. But Guaidó could seek refuge in a friendly embassy in Caracas and run his parallel government from there. Maduro would probably not dare send his troops into, say, the Brazilian Embassy.
Guaidó could order countries that recognized him to freeze all of the regime’s assets and financial transactions abroad, paralyzing the Maduro government. The National Assembly has already authorized Guaidó to take that step.
Guaidó could also authorize an international humanitarian aid corridor to Venezuela, something Maduro has steadfastly opposed. That would allow Western democracies to send desperately needed food and medicines to the Colombian and Brazilian borders. Venezuelans would be further furious at Maduro if such aid remained stuck at the border because of his refusal to let it in.
These and other possible moves could help force Maduro out of office without international military intervention, which is a bad option — and an unlikely one, too. Guaidó’s measures would put pressure on the Venezuelan military to demand a peaceful and constitutional solution to Venezuela’s crisis.
If Trump and the heads Latin America’s leading democracies formally recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate caretaker president, they could help speed up a constitutional solution in Venezuela. They shouldn’t wait any longer.
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