Venezuela braces for anti-government march amid tension, unrest

Emboldened by growing unrest, new leadership and the backing of the White House, Venezuelans are taking to the streets Wednesday in what is expected to be the largest anti-government demonstration in more than a year.

Buckling under an unprecedented economic crisis and two decades of socialist rule, the opposition is accusing President Nicolás Maduro of being a “usurper” and are demanding a transitional government that will hold new elections — something that Maduro and his followers vow will never happen.

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence entered the fray, releasing a video message in support of the protesters and the newly elected president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó. Calling Maduro a “dictator” who had never won a free and fair election, Pence said the U.S. would only recognize the authority of the opposition-controlled congress.

“We say to all the good people of Venezuela ‘estamos con ustedes,’ we are with you, we stand with you and we will stay with you until democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of libertad,” Pence said.

If Venezuela’s opposition was looking for a provocative day to hold a protest, they couldn’t have done much better than Wednesday.

Jan. 23 marks the 61st anniversary of the military uprising that toppled dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez. And while history might not repeat itself this week, may believe that Wednesday’s protests could be a turning point for Maduro.

Since assuming the head of the National Assembly this month, 35-year-old Guaidó has been leading rallies nationwide to build support for Wednesday’s march. And the country has been responding.

“Against all odds, over the last 10 to 12 days, we’ve seen a growing sense of enthusiasm,” said Dimitris Pantaoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst and consultant.“ Guaidó as an opposition leader is relatively new and you can’t say that his positions are particularly clear … but he’s become a symbol of hope and energy.”

The opposition’s last large marches were in 2017 and they ended in disillusionment for many. As the government shot, jailed and hounded protesters, some felt betrayed when the opposition leadership agreed to negotiations that went nowhere. Since then, there has been the sense that Maduro has tightened his control on power thanks to military support.

Wednesday is the opposition’s chance to change that narrative, said Jesús Seguías, the president of the political analysis firm DatinCorp.

“This is a chance for the opposition to show the world that the immense majority of people don’t agree with the government, want a change, and want the opposition to call for new elections,” he said.

And despite the fear of tear gas and riot police, there are reasons to believe the march will be significant, he said. “People feel like they have nothing left to lose because they have lost it all, including their children, who have left the country.”

Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, has been holding rallies across the country to build support for the national march on Jan. 23. Fernando Llano AP

Venezuela’s economic collapse has been dramatic. The International Monetary Fund expects the country’s oil-based economy to shrink 18 percent this year and for inflation to hit 10 million percent, the world’s highest. Hunger is rampant and even basic medicine is hard to find. With little hope for the future, more than 3.3 million Venezuelans have left the country in recent years.

And yet, 56-year-old Maduro doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, even as he’s lost domestic and international support.

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Like other nations in the region, the United States is increasingly betting on Guaidó, a U.S. educated engineer who has risen through the ranks of the opposition. Some, like Brazil, have gone so far as to call Guaidó Venezuela’s president — a title he hasn’t dared adopt himself, knowing it would likely end in jail.

In that sense, the international community needs to work more closely with the opposition in order to not exacerbate tensions, said David Smilde with the Washington Office on Latin America.

“We are in a situation where whoever makes a mistake will end up losing here,” he said, “and it’s very possible that it’s the international community that makes that mistake.”

Maduro is intensely aware of the threat posed by the National Assembly and its new leader.

On Jan. 13 Guaidó was detained on his way to a rally, only to be released — with handcuff welts still on his wrists — an hour later. And on Monday the Supreme Court, packed with Maduro cronies, ruled that Guaidó and the rest of the congressional leadership were occupying their positions illegally and that all the decisions congress had taken since Jan. 5 were null.

Guaidó brushed off the ruling, but the decision could set the stage for a showdown. The arrest of Guaidó’s political mentor, Leopoldo López, amid nationwide protests in 2014, is likely on his mind.

But the government will also have to tread carefully in dealing with the march, Seguías said.

“January 23 is full of uncertainties. There’s unrest inside the armed forces and we don’t know how they’ll respond. And we don’t know how large the march will be,” he said. “In some ways it’s not in Maduro’s best interests to squash the march because he’s trying to convince the international community that there’s no dictatorship here.”

Military Unrest

The key to Maduro’s power is the military, and there are signs of turmoil in the ranks. On Monday, there was a short-lived uprising by about two dozen Bolivarian National Guard that was quickly put down.

“The military uprising itself should not actually be read as good news by those who see [a coup] as a solution, because, once again, it was a low-level group that rebelled and did not seem to have any kind of larger network, strategy or plan,” Smilde said. But the street protests that broke out in support of the soldiers should worry the government — and are likely to embolden those in the military who are unhappy. The Observatory for Social Conflict, which tracks protests, said there were at least 30 demonstrations Monday night in the capital alone, many in areas considered government strongholds.

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The National Assembly has also been trying to drive a wedge between Maduro and his commanders. Earlier this month, it passed a bill granting amnesty to military officials who help restore the constitutional order. It was a savvy move, Seguías said.

“You have to remember that the real power in Venezuela is the military, it’s not Nicolás Maduro,” he said, “and the amnesty law passed by the National Assembly is the first big concession that is being made to them…now we have to wait and see how the military responds.”

An anti-government demonstrator is wrapped in a Venezuelan flag during clashes with police and troops around a National Guard command post in Cotiza, in northern Caracas, on Jan. 21, 2019. A group of soldiers rose up against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro at a command post in northern Caracas on Monday, but were quickly arrested after posting an appeal for public support in a video, the government said. FEDERICO PARRA AFP/Getty Images

The Jan. 23, 1958, downfall of Pérez Jiménez (he fled to the Dominican Republic) came after a series of smaller failed coup attempts. And while there are those who see history repeating itself, most analysts are more cautious.

The armed forces aren’t going to stage a coup “because they are the power,” Seguías said.

Pantaoulas said he understands why people are hopeful for a dramatic and sudden change after 20 years of socialist rule — first under Hugo Chávez and now Maduro — but regardless of what happens, he believes the protests will be something of a rebirth for the opposition.

“I think we will be turning a page on Wednesday,” he said. “But it’s not the end of the chapter and much less the end of the book.”

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