Who is the president of Venezuela right now? According to the White House, it’s not Nicolas Maduro, who assumed power in 2013 and was re-elected in a disputed contest last year. It’s Juan Guaido, the president of the national assembly, who declared himself interim president Wednesday:
Maduro hasn’t stepped down, despite a new round of mass street protests against his rule. And despite the Guaido’s calls for Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against the (other) president, they have not yet done so.
So can Trump do this, and what does it mean?
It’s unusual, but not unprecedented. In general practice, the U.S. recognizes states not their governments. It maintains diplomatic relations with whoever the de facto ruler of a state is. If that’s unclear, such as during a coup, revolution, or civil war, it waits for the de facto ruler to emerge.
There are exceptions to that rule. The Obama administration recognized Libya’s opposition Transitional National Council and the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the “legitimate” governments of their countries while Muammar al-Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad were still in power. But both cases were in the context of an armed conflict where the ruler in question had lost control of significant portions of his territory to the opposition. That’s not the case in Venezuela. Not yet, anyway. By contrast, in a situation more similar to this one, the Obama administration controversially refused to recognize the new government that took power in Honduras after a coup ousted the left-wing populist president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The White House demanded that he be returned to power. Relations were eventually normalized after new elections were held.
Mike Pence called Maduro “a dictator with no legitimate claim to power” in a video released on Tuesday, but the word legitimate is dicey here. It’s true that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was widely considered a sham by the international community and that the assembly led by Guaido is widely considered one of Venezuela’s last democratic institutions. But as Trump, who will sit down for a second time with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un next month, well knows, the U.S. has political dealings with plenty of non-democratic governments. (Recognition is also not the same thing as having diplomatic relations: The U.S. doesn’t have an embassy in Pyongyang but has never disputed that Kim is the ruler of North Korea.)
The U.S. has, at times, used non-recognition as a way to delegitimize governments it doesn’t approve of. Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize several Latin American leaders, most notably the Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta. Wilson also later sent U.S. troops into Mexico during an uprising against Huerta, which Trump has reportedly suggested doing in the case of Venezuela. During the Cold War, the U.S. recognized the Republic of China, aka Taiwan, as the legitimate government of all of China, despite the Communist People’s Republic of China controlling the country’s entire mainland.
In this case, Trump can claim to be following the region’s lead. The government of Brazil and the head of the Organization of American States have both stated that they recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Reuters reports that Canada plans to as well.
It’s not clear what political impact Trump’s announcement will have. Maduro will no doubt use it to denounce Guaido and the opposition as U.S.-backed puppets (the Trump administrations has also reportedly had conversations with potential coup-plotters in the Venezuelan military), but he was doing that anyway. The economic distress and level of violence in Venezuela are already dire, but it’s possible to imagine it getting worse if the country into two governments competing for legitimacy, one backed the U.S., Brazil, one by Russia, China and Cuba. This sort of proxy battle is a recipe for outright civil war.