This clearly wasn’t how it was supposed to go. On Tuesday morning, the Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is recognized as the interim president of the country by the United States and other countries, broadcast a video from a military base flanked by armed National Guard troops who had defected to the opposition. It appeared that the armed forces of Venezuela, or at least a significant portion of them, might finally have turned on embattled de facto President Nicolás Maduro.
But as the day wore on, it became clear that Guaidó didn’t have the numbers. After an initial skirmish, there were no additional signs of military forces fighting on the opposition side. The army remained with Maduro. Demonstrations flared throughout Caracas, and more than 60 people were injured, including in one grotesque incident, captured on video, in which an armored vehicle plowed into a throng of protesters on a crowded overpass. At the end of the day, Maduro appeared on TV flanked by his senior military commanders. Guaidó, from an undisclosed location, called for more protests Wednesday—May Day—but it’s becoming clear that the opposition took its best shot on Tuesday and fell short.
Was something else supposed to happen? U.S. officials seemed to suggest so. In a video message posted on Twitter, National Security Adviser John Bolton named several senior Venezuelan officials who had “all agreed that Maduro had to go.” Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that four of the men sitting with Maduro during his announcement had been involved in launching the uprising. It’s not clear quite how closely the Trump administration was involved with this overthrow attempt, but it seems like there was at least some expectation in Washington that these military brass would turn on Maduro when the time came.
So what happens now? Guaidó and his supporters will continue to try to rally public support, but it’s unclear how many setbacks like this his movement can sustain. Leopoldo López, the former presidential candidate and opposition leader who had been imprisoned but then surprised supporters by appearing in public with his protégé Guaidó on Tuesday, has sought refuge at the Spanish Embassy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that “military action is possible,” which sounds drastic but has more or less been the official U.S. position since the beginning. For now, it seems unlikely.
The administration’s attention appears to be shifting to Venezuela’s foreign allies. Pompeo accused the Russian government of dissuading Maduro from leaving for Cuba on Tuesday. “He had an airplane on the tarmac. He was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay.” (This could be true—the Russians have denied it—but it seems odd given that Maduro doesn’t appear to have ever been in any serious danger.) President Donald Trump also threatened Cuba with a “full and complete embargo” unless it ceases its military support for Maduro’s government.
This would seem a pretty trivial threat given that Cuba has been under a U.S. embargo since the early 1960s. Yes, there are ways to tighten the embargo and amp up the pressure, but it seems unlikely the Cubans will fold after half a century. It feels more like an acknowledgment that Washington is running out of means to impose pressure on Venezuela itself.
Much of the Trump administration’s bluster in the past two days—including Bolton’s message, in English, “to all the patriotic citizens of Venezuela,” appears intended more for consumption by voters in Florida than by the generals in Caracas.
Without the military turning against Maduro, it’s hard to see a path to victory for the opposition, even with heavy backing from the U.S. and other foreign powers. Unfortunately, given the grim shambles of a situation he’s created in Venezuela, Maduro now appears likely to hang on to power.