The political uprising in Venezuela escalated on Wednesday at a stunning speed. First the 35-year-old president of Venezuela’s national assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared President Nicolas Maduro’s rule illegitimate and named himself interim president amid mass opposition protests. Minutes later the United States, along with a host of other regional governments, recognized Guaidó as the new head of state.
While many observers were caught off-guard, it seems likely there was some coordination involved in these announcements. This is an unprecedented international challenge for Maduro, who appeared likely to remain in power for years after his controversial inauguration for a second term on Jan. 10—despite skyrocketing inflation, a growing humanitarian and refugee crisis, and widespread global criticism and sanctions of his increasingly autocratic rule.
On Thursday, things settled into a stalemate, though likely a short-lived one. Guaidó had urged the country’s armed forces to break from Maduro and support the protests. Cleary, there’s some discontent in the ranks. Just this Monday, an attempted mutiny by a small group of soldiers was put down in Caracas. But senior military commanders appear to be sticking with the president. In a televised address on Thursday, the country’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, flanked by senior military officers, affirmed the armed forces’ support for Maduro and dismissed Guaidó as a right-wing pawn of the United States. The question going forward is how far military commanders will go if Maduro urges the armed forces to crack down on protesters with deadly force—often a key turning point in many countries’ uprisings.
Despite the surprising unity of the countries backing Guaidó, Maduro’s best friends are sticking with him. In additional to leftist regional governments Cuba and Bolivia, Venezuelan allies including Russia, China, and Turkey all backed Maduro and condemned U.S. interference in the country’s affairs. European countries are somewhere in the middle, with EU’s high representative for foreign affairs saying in a statement that the protesters demands “cannot be ignored” and supporting new elections but stopping short of recognizing Guaido or calling on Maduro to step down.
All eyes are now on the escalating standoff between Caracas and Washington. After Trump’s recognition announcement, Maduro ordered all U.S. diplomatic personnel to leave the country within 72 hours. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who now appears to be serving as the Trump administration’s unofficial Venezuela czar, responded that U.S. personnel should stay, as Maduro was no longer the president and had no authority to issue such an order. A short time later, Pompeo affirmed that U.S. diplomats would be staying put, effectively making them pawns in the standoff. (Nonessential personnel and family members are likely to be evacuated soon.) The stakes are alarmingly high, given that Trump on multiple occasions has suggested he’s open to ordering military intervention against Maduro. The U.S. has invaded countries in the western hemisphere in the past under the pretext of protecting American citizens on the ground.
Even if Trump doesn’t go that far, Latin America hawks are likely to call on him to dial up the pressure. Florida lawmakers, for instance, are calling on the administration to add Venezuela to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Another step could be an oil embargo, a drastic move given that Venezuela’s struggling economy gets about 95 percent of its export income from oil, much of it exported to the United States. Even many members of the Venezuelan opposition have been against an embargo, which could have dire humanitarian consequences that the government could use to deflect blame away from its own policies onto the United States. It could also raise gas prices and hurt refineries in the U.S., which Trump might not be eager to do, no matter how much he much he loathes Maduro or wants to appease Rubio and other Venezuela hawks.
The Trump White House took its strongest step yet toward toppling Maduro today, but the harder part will be deciding what to do if he survives—as he very well might.
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