Gunfire and teargas as tension escalates in Venezuela
Since he first stood on a stage on Jan. 23 and announced he was seizing the presidency from Nicolás Maduro, Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old head of congress, has embodied hope for change. With the backing of Washington and more than 50 other nations — and the adoration of millions — he made the country believe his slogan ”vamos bien” — we’re doing well.
But last week’s failed military uprising and a spate of violent but fruitless demonstrations have some wondering if Guaidó, and the opposition at large, have what it takes to oust Maduro and end 20 years of single-party rule. Suddenly “vamos bien” is becoming harder for some to utter.
A poll released Monday by Caracas-based Meganalisis found that Guaidó’s approval ratings dropped to 50 percent, down from 84 percent in January. He’s still far more popular than Maduro — whose approval rating is at 4 percent — but the precipitous drop can’t be ignored, said Meganalisis Vice President Ruben Chirino Leañez.
“The opposition has to be worried because they haven’t been able to deliver solutions to the people,” he said. In the wake of last week’s failed military uprising, Guaidó called for more street protests and a general strike — well-worn tactics from years past. “It’s craziness to think that if you keep doing the same things you will get different results.”
April 30 was a watershed for Guaidó. That morning, surrounded by a dozen or so armed soldiers, he declared that the country was in the final phases of “Operation Liberty” — a fuzzily defined push that many believed would sweep Maduro out of office. By his side was his political mentor and one of the country’s most polarizing figures, Leopoldo López, who was sprung from house arrest under the scheme.
In retrospect, the image of Guaidó, the so-called bridge-builder, beside López, considered a political bomb-thrower, wasn’t a good look, said Jesús Seguías the head of the DatinCorp, a Venezuela-based political analysis firm.
“Operation Liberty didn’t liberate the country,” he said, “it only liberated Leopoldo López.”
But it also proved something else: that the time for promoting military coups is over.
“April 30th has to be the last ‘adventure’ that the opposition will allow itself,” Seguías said. “They cannot afford anymore political missteps and any new errors could be fatal for the entire country.”
Chirino said the nation is still trying to process what happened last week, including the death of four protesters at the hands of Maduro’s security forces after Guaidó called for continual street protests.
“Venezuelans feel like they’ve already risked so much and the results are always the same,” he said, “more dead youngsters and no signs of the change that they want.”
That sense of desperation is leading many to dream of extreme scenarios: a foreign military intervention.
According to the Meganalisis poll, a full 89 percent of those surveyed favor a multinational military intervention — and have given up hope that change can happen from within. The study surveyed 1,120 people from May 2 to 4 and has a margin of error of 3.2 percent.
Washington’s partially responsible for those visions of troops marching across the border. For months, President Trump and his national security staff have said “all options” are on the table when dealing with Venezuela. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo specifically mentioned that a military force might be in the cards.
But there are also reasons to doubt the U.S. threats — to believe that they’re little more than bluster meant to unnerve the 57-year-old Maduro.
Chirino, for one, thinks the idea of a U.S. military intervention is unlikely, but he understands why people in Venezuela are longing for it, as hyperinflation has destroyed quality of life and made even basic food and medicine a luxury. While chemotherapy costs about $600 a session at a private clinic in Caracas, for example, the minimum wage is just $6 per month, he said.
“The reality for people in Venezuela is catastrophic,” Chirino said. “So people are willing to cling onto anything, even if it’s unlikely.”
Guaidó and his allies are downplaying April 30, insisting the uprising was a modest success that proved there were deep divisions inside the military that will eventually be Maduro’s undoing.
López, speaking from the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas where he has taken refuge with his family, described April 30 as a “fissure that would turn into a crack” that would eventually break the levee.
But that’s not necessarily the perception on the street, Chirino said.
“What happened last week is still too confusing and Venezuelans are still rattled that we had more deaths, more repression and nothing got accomplished,” he said.
But if street protests are ineffective and a military intervention is unlikely, what are the solutions?
Some argue the time has come for the opposition to negotiate with the Maduro regime — again. Attempts to do exactly that failed in 2014 and 2017 and have made the whole idea of dialogue anathema to many.
Guaidó, for one, has said he would only engage in talks if they were about Maduro stepping down and making way for free and fair elections — a big ask for a man who still occupies the Miraflores presidential palace and has proven that he has the loyalty of a large swath of the military.
But negotiations may be the only way out of the impasse, said Geoff Ramsey, the assistant director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C.-based think-tank and advocacy group.
“I think the opposition is already starting to realize that they simply don’t possess the tools they need to entirely impose their strategy on the other side,” he said, noting that several coup plots and military uprisings have been undone by Maduro’s spies in recent years.
“It’s becoming clear to the opposition that they will not be able to get around counterintelligence,” he said. “I think both the opposition and the regime, to an extent, are slowly coming to the realization that they aren’t as strong as they thought they were.”
The European Union-backed International Contact Group for Venezuela will be meeting Tuesday in San Jose, Costa Rica, and has been pushing for a negotiated solution to the crisis. Unlike past dialogue efforts, the ICG has a clear mandate: find a way to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible.
Seguías, with DatinCorp, also believes that negotiations — and an inclusive transitional government — are the only way to solve the country’s multiple crises: the economic meltdown, insecurity, the collapse of public services and the political impasse.
“Then you have our most important crisis, which is an emotional crisis,” he said. “Venezuela has turned into a country full of hate and consumed by the spirit of vengeance and violent aggression. It’s impossible to build anything here right now.”
But sitting down with Maduro will be a hard sell for Guaidó. The Meganalisis poll found that 88 percent of those surveyed reject “dialogue” and only 9 percent think Maduro will ever leave office “peacefully.”
While the Trump administration hasn’t come out in favor of negotiations, there are those who hope that it’s “all options” on the table refrain might include a negotiated exit.
Seguías said what’s clear is that the international community, through sanctions and other measures, needs to keep up the pressure on the regime “or we’ll have Maduro forever.”
Maduro’s strategy for the moment seems to be one of violence — and restraint. While his troops have been using deadly force to put down protests he’s refrained from jailing Guaidó, a move that would likely spark more international sanctions. Over the weekend, Maduro’s Minister of Labor Eduardo Piñate said Guaidó had no real backing and was a “product of political marketing.”
“He will deflate,” Piñate said. “Let him dry up alone, all by himself.”
But Maduro isn’t safe either. Unable to fully control his troops or the sprawling bureaucracy, the country has become ungovernable. In that sense, it’s in everyone’s interest to find a solution, Ramsey said.
“Nobody wants to fight this to the end,” he said, “only to govern over a pile of ashes.”
Freelancer Carlos Camacho contributed to this story from Caracas