At first, at least, the plan looked promising.
In the early morning of April 30, Juan Guaido, Venezuela’s opposition leader and internationally recognized interim president, appeared outside La Carlota Air Base in Carlota to announce what he called “the end of the usurpation”: a wide-ranging operation to force Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro out of power. A few feet behind Guaido, stern and rigid, fists clenched, stood Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most famous political prisoner, who had been held under house arrest by the Maduro regime. As the sun slowly came up over Caracas, Guaido and a handful of soldiers had set him free.
A few seconds into the video, Guaido’s speech took on a persuasive tone.
There was no mistaking his target audience. “Our armed forces,” Guaido said, “brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men who believe in the constitution have heeded our call.” A gifted orator, Guaido was counting on mass insurgency within Venezuela’s army, a crucial collaborator in Maduro’s authoritarian stranglehold on the country. Guaido then instructed Venezuelans to take to the streets and begin what would be, he reckoned, the beginning of the end of the despotic Maduro regime.
For the vast majority of Venezuelans, who have watched their country be dismantled first by strongman Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, and then by Maduro, a leader whose authoritarian disposition has sadly matched his governing ineptitude, Guaido’s early-morning statement must have felt like a shot at redemption.
Hope was short-lived. Guaido’s plans failed completely.
It took only a few hours for Guaido’s “Operation Freedom” to collapse under the weight of its own ambition. Venezuelans didn’t take to the streets in droves, like they had done in an impressive way just weeks before. Venezuela’s top military brass didn’t break ranks with Maduro, even though the opposition claimed to have secured pledges from them to do so ahead of time. López eventually sought refuge at the Spanish Embassy. After having vanished for a few hours, Maduro himself reappeared to claim victory. “I thank the Venezuelan people for their courage, strength and conscience to face this failed coup attempt,” he tweeted.
What went wrong?
In a recent chronicle of the failed uprising, Spanish newspaper El País raises the possibility that Guaido jumped the gun, hastening the beginning of the operation against Maduro without properly notifying those in the military who had agreed to facilitate a transition and unilaterally deciding to free López, whose presence and visibility perhaps irritated parts of the already-fractured Venezuelan opposition.
Moisés Naím, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and former Venezuelan government minister, says the true allegiance of the country’s military is still a real mystery. For instance, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López seemed to be for the plot before he was against it. “There are 2,000 generals in Venezuela. Not even NATO has that many,” Naim said in a recent interview with Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. “There’s enormous fragmentation within the armed forces. It’s a very opaque and fragmented constellation of actors.”
For the Trump administration, which has supported and recognized Guaido along with more than 50 other countries, the culprit lies elsewhere. A few hours after the plan failed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blamed Russia. Maduro “had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning as we understand it and the Russians indicated he should stay. He was heading for Havana,” Pompeo told CNN, without offering evidence to back the claim. For Spanish journalist Maite Rico, an experienced voice in the region, Guaido’s failed operation offers definitive proof of Cuba’s deep involvement in Venezuela. Cuba, Rico says, has latched onto Venezuela like a “parasite”: “Venezuela’s oil has helped Cuba’s regime survive for 20 years. Havana is now trying to save its host even if that means prolonging the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”
Whatever the cause, the breakdown of Guaido’s latest attempt at dislodging Maduro and his cronies was a reality check for most Venezuelans. For Naím, years of misery have taken a toll on the country’s expectations. “Desperation has made us forget that turning a dictatorship into a democracy is not an instantaneous, painless, or easy process,” Naím said. “It is never a linear process. It takes a while, but we should not falter.” Venezuelan writer Alberto Barrera Tyszka agrees. In a recent piece for the New York Times, Barrera argues that Guaido’s failure “once again proves that [Venezuela’s] institutional void cannot be filled with violence. It’s another reminder that democracy can only be legitimized through the vote, not guns.”
Unfortunately, while Venezuelans like Naím and Barrera still urge patience, other actors seem prepared for harsher measures. Led by the president’s bellicose national security adviser, John Bolton, the number of voices within the administration currently lobbying for military action in Venezuela seems to be growing. Other voices close to President Donald Trump—like Sen. Marco Rubio, who has previously argued the merits of possible military intervention in Venezuela—are apparently choosing to err on the side of caution. This is still the correct path. For Venezuelan journalist and Washington Post columnist Quico Toro, potential American military action on Venezuelan soil would likely mean a turn for the worse. “I’d say there would be a 10 percent chance that [U.S.] Marines could solve the problem,” Toro told me recently. “But there’s a much bigger chance that they would ignite a civil war or would simply destroy the Venezuelan army and leave an unmanageable mess behind.”
If the United States’ interventionist history in Latin America shows us anything, Toro’s scenario would be the direst possible outcome for the long-suffering Venezuelan people. Donald Trump must find it within himself to show restraint.