Opposition supporters protest in Venezuela
The head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, the man Washington and 50 other nations say is the legitimate leader of the country, is calling for massive street protests on July 5 — Venezuela’s independence day.
Despite enjoying broad international support and the backing of many in his country, Juan Guaidó has no real power in the South American nation. And he’s acknowledged that his strength derives from his popular support and ability to mobilize the masses.
And yet Guaidó’s ability to conjure up crowds is in doubt. After leading massive marches early this year, demonstration fatigue seems to be setting in.
“We’re at a historic turning point,” he said during a May 11 demonstration that attracted several hundred supporters. “Either we’re imprisoned by fear, desperation and inaction ... or we stay together on the streets, with hope and strength.”
Almost two months after that gathering, it’s unclear whether fear or hope will prevail on Friday.
The nation has plenty of reasons to be outraged. Amid a collapsing economy, hyperinflation and an emigration crisis, the Nicolás Maduro regime has resorted to increasingly brutal tactics to hold on to power.
Over the weekend it became public that his security forces had tortured a Navy official to death after he was detained for allegedly plotting an assassination attempt against Maduro.
Venezuela’s Prosecutor General, Tarek William Saab, said two Bolivarian National Guard members would be held responsible for the death of Rafael Acosta, but the issue has sparked waves of fresh outrage and condemnation from the global community.
Guaidó, 35, is portraying this Friday’s march as a way to denounce Acosta’s death and the regime’s torture tactics.
“This [July 5] we’re going to take the streets of all of Venezuela as a symbol of our resistance and rejection of the murderers and [to prove] that we’re a country that will not grow accustomed to tragedy,” Guaidó wrote on Twitter. “The regime wants us to be imprisoned by our pain and desperation. Let’s arise one more time on the streets.”
But some have grown weary of the high-risk marches that don’t seem to have a clear objective in mind.
Ruben Rivero Capriles runs a film and television school in Caracas and is a prominent political pundit. He said he has attended virtually every march that Guaidó has called for since the young politician first rose to prominence in January.
But after seeing people killed by police during protests in April, he said he doesn’t see the point in risking his life in another march that will likely be confined to opposition strongholds and therefore have almost no chance of running Maduro out of the Miraflores presidential palace.
“The protests aren’t working,” he said. “There are a lot of people who don’t agree with the protests any more, and that’s new. Why go to peaceful protests if the National Guard is shooting to kill?”
In a newsletter he sent to about 37,000 subscribers, Capriles was even harsher: “Our protest is to not join in pointless marches,” he wrote. “Hopefully, this protest will fail so that the [opposition] leadership understands that their political capital is waning. Go find other guinea pigs that can be sacrificed as collateral damage.”
While recent polls have shown Gauidó’s popularity fading, Maduro is not getting any stronger either. Hounded by the economic collapse and punishing sanctions, he’s under constant threat of revolt within the armed forces.
While Guaidó is leading protests on Friday, Maduro, 57, will be overseeing the traditional independence day military parade. In the past, he’s used the occasion to shake up the military leadership.
Rocío San Miguel, of Control Ciudadano, a Venezuela-based group that studies the military, says that if this were any other year, Maduro would likely mark the date by replacing Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López.
But López — who said Guaidó and the opposition had tried to recruit him to join a failed military uprising in April — may stay on due to his loyalty, at a time when that virtue is in short supply.
Maduro was the target of an assassination attempt in August, when a drone laden with explosives detonated as he oversaw a military gathering.
San Miguel said she’ll be watching Maduro’s events for subtle clues about his sense of personal security. Will there only be military in attendance or will Maduro open up the event to civilians, as he’s done in the past?
“This will be a good way to measure the depth of his fears, the way he handles the crowds,” she said.
When Guaidó first announced that he was constitutionally bound to assume the presidency on Jan. 23, many in Washington thought Maduro’s downfall was imminent. Now it appears the world is digging in for the long haul.
Last week Admiral Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. Armed Forces in South America and the Caribbean, told the EFE news agency the situation in Venezuela was “stagnating.”
“I think that, thanks to Army reports, we have a very realistic view of the complexity of this scenario, which leads me to believe that it requires strategic patience,” he said.
Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was in Colombia this week as part of bipartisan efforts to keep pressure on Maduro.
He said many in Washington had “false expectations” that Guaidó could drive Maduro out of power quickly. But as a child of Cuban exiles, Menendez said he had no such illusions.
“Yes, there was hope that things would happen sooner rather than later,” he said. “But for my part, I know that dictatorships don’t fall from one day to the next.”