It’s all or nothing for Juan Guaidó now.
Venezuela has been in an agonizing stalemate since January, when the opposition leader and president of the national assembly declared himself interim president of the country and was quickly recognized as such by the United States and the majority of governments in the region. President Nicolás Maduro, who remains in control of the country’s government and armed forces, has refused to budge. Meanwhile, crippling international sanctions have worsened the already dire economic conditions in what was once one of Latin America’s richest nations, now plagued by food and medicine shortages, widespread blackouts, and an ever-worsening refugee crisis.
On Tuesday morning, Guaidó threw down a gauntlet by releasing a video from an air force base near the capital, Caracas, surrounded by armed military forces. Guaidó said that the “main military units of the Armed Forces” were backing what he called the final phase of “Operation Liberty.” He also appeared with imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo López, who said he’d been freed by military guards loyal to Guaidó. Gunfire between pro-Guaidó and pro-Maduro troops was reported at the air base following Guaidó’s announcement.
#OperacionLibertad was quickly backed on Twitter by U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, national security adviser John Bolton, and Sen. Marco Rubio. Regional governments including Colombia and Brazil also voiced their support.
Guaidó has been calling for the armed forces to back him from the beginning, but Tuesday’s actions are a significant escalation, the apparent beginning of an attempted military coup, though not everyone wants to call it that. Rubio, describing Guaidó as the internationally recognized legitimate president, has called CNN’s reporting “grotesque” and “shameful” for describing Tuesday’s events as an “armed coup.”
He protests a bit too much: Calling something a coup is not a value judgment. Brutal dictators can be overthrown by their own militaries—just look at recent events in Sudan—and there are plenty of examples of militaries acting in coordination with peaceful protesters and even working to restore democracy.
The bigger reason to be hesitant about calling Tuesday’s events a coup is that it’s not clear an overthrow is actually happening. The fighting at the air base fizzled out quickly, and while there have been demonstrations and violent clashes between protesters and security forces throughout Caracas, Reuters reports that “several hours after Guaidó’s announcement there was no sign of any other military activity and there were no immediate reports of casualties.” Maduro has tweeted that regional defense commanders have “expressed their total loyalty,” and until we see otherwise, the assumption should be that the bulk of the military is still backing the government.
Still, if a small but significant part of the armed forces has defected to Maduro, it could raise the stakes of the standoff significantly: While the Maduro government has arrested hundreds of opponents in recent weeks, it hasn’t touched Guaidó himself, recognizing the risks of detaining the man whom many world governments recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Bolton has promised a “significant response” if Guaidó is touched. Tuesday’s actions will raise pressure on the regime to take action to finally stop Guaidó, and raise pressure on his international backers to take action—peaceful or otherwise—on his behalf. Today may not be the final battle for control of Venezuela, but the odds just went up significantly that Guaidó will end up dead, in jail, or sitting in the presidential palace.