Over the summer as tensions in the Middle East have dominated the attention of the world, Venezuela fell between the cracks of the international agenda. On Wednesday, President Trump moved to remedy this at the UN General Assembly. In a meeting with Latin American leaders who do not recognize Nicolas Maduro as the rightful leader of Venezuela, Trump reaffirmed the US commitment to Venezuela and pushed back against perceptions that US concern about the political unrest, and economic distress in that country has waned. The US, and nearly sixty other nations around the world support opposition leader Juan Guaido and consider him to be the rightful leader of Venezuela. Unfortunately, Guaido’s international status was hurt somewhat by the abortive coup the opposition launched in the spring, which accomplished nothing. Maduro remains in power, bolstered largely by Cuban, and to a far lesser extent, Russian support.
Meanwhile, as the meeting at the UN played out, Nicolas Maduro was in Moscow for discussions with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Russia has been a strong supporter of Maduro and his government, providing generous loans, and assistance for Venezuela’s military, and petroleum industry. There’s little chance of the two leaders coming to an agreement on additional loans or material support in this meeting. However, Maduro will return to Russia for another meeting with Putin early next month during the Valdai Club meeting in Sochi.
A month ago Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido seemed to be perched on the edge of a major victory that would eject Nicolas Maduro, and his corrupt regime from power. He had almost single-handedly molded the opposition into a viable counterweight to Maduro. He had earned the unfettered support of the Venezuelan people, and the international community. Guaido’s star was rising and Maduro’s hold on power was growing more tenuous. Momentum was clearly on the side of the opposition, and the nightmare of Maduro seemed close to coming to an end.
But then Guaido overestimated the level of support the opposition had garnered from the military. He then launched an ill-fated ‘military uprising’ against Maduro, and shortly thereafter, everything came crashing down.
To be fair, an uprising was being prepared by the opposition, and significant military support was expected. More time was needed before it would be ready though. Guaido disregarded this crucial fact and launched the uprising early, basing his decision on reports that Maduro was planning to arrest the opposition leadership in a matter of hours. The military supporters balked and nearly all senior officers withheld their support. As a result, the uprising was stillborn.
Two weeks after the ill-fated uprising, many opposition leaders have sought asylum in foreign embassies around Caracas. Anti-Maduro protests are drawing less and less participants in the streets as the government crackdown shifts into high gear. In a surprise move over the weekend, Guaido has asked Washington for a direct relationship with the US military. This is officially intended to help increase the pressure on Maduro. Unofficially, it’s an act of desperation. The very idea of a foreign leader having close relations with the US military is alien. Even though the Trump administration fully supports Guaido, the president is not about to order US Southern Command to take orders from him as they would from Trump.
Guaido dropped the ball when he prematurely began the uprising and now the opposition is reeling as he attempts to recover.
Whether he can or not is another matter entirely.
Opposition supporters staged mass protests for the second consecutive day in Caracas and around the country. Opposition leader and interim national leader Juan Guaido addressed his supporters today and vowed to continue the demonstrations every day “to achieve freedom.” He also stated that a series of staggered strikes will begin tomorrow and evolve into a general strike by the end of the week. Guaido’s pushing forward and is almost single-handedly keeping the effort going. Quite honestly, the uprising has not gone as well as Guaido had hoped or expected. Contrary to his hopes, the majority of Venezuela’s senior military leaders have not given their support to the opposition. Two days of demonstrations, and sometimes violent clashes with government forces has not budged Nicolas Maduro. It is safe to say now that the military uprising was stillborn. Guaido and the opposition will have to keep the pressure on the Maduro regime without the backing of Venezuela’s armed forces and its leadership.
Maduro has Russia and Cuba to thank for his remaining in power. Their support is all that is keeping him from being deposed, and if Moscow and Havana waiver, Maduro will suffer. This does not seem probable though, especially considering that Maduro was about to leave the country before the Russians convinced him to remain. Unless the opposition manages to retake the initiative and apply significant pressure on the Maduro regime by this weekend, Guaido’s masterstroke will be considered a failure. At that time, the geopolitical dimensions will retake centerstage and the next move in this crisis will be orchestrated in Washington DC, not Caracas.
The sun is setting in Venezuela and the whereabouts of Juan Guaido and Nicolas Maduro are unknown for the moment. Maduro has not been seen in public all day. The Venezuelan strongman is likely in a secure location outside of the city, and even more likely under the protection of Russian and Cuban troops. Guaido’s current location is not known either. If the uprising is in fact bogging down, he needs to be seen out in public to rally the troops, so to speak. There are certainly security concerns for him right now as well, but the risks may have to be taken.
A tweet by opposition politician Antonio Ledezma claims Leopoldo Lopez has not requested asylum from Chile and is no longer at the Chilean embassy. Ledezma’s tweet contradicts earlier reports that Ledezma had requested political asylum from Chilean officials at the embassy.
Geopolitical activity has ramped up through the late afternoon and early evening. President Trump is warning Cuba to end its military support for the Maduro regime or face economic sanctions, and a full embargo. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in an earlier interview on CNN that the Washington has indications Maduro was actually prepared to depart Venezuela but the Russians convinced him to stay. If this turns out to be accurate it brings into question the level of commitment Russia has for keeping Maduro in power. More importantly, it leads Washington to wonder just how deep that commitment will go if the uprising continues. For its part, Moscow has claimed the US is trying to undermine a Russian ally, a statement entirely open to interpretation.
The latest news coming out of Caracas does not bode well for Juan Guaido and the opposition. Right now it appears the uprising could be bogged down, perhaps fatally. There are reports that Leopoldo Lopez, a senior opposition leader, has arrived at the Chilean embassy in Caracas with his family and is requesting asylum. This report came on the heels of similar ones indicating ‘senior’ Venezuelan military officers have requested asylum at the Brazilian embassy. A third report, yet to be entirely confirmed, has stated soldiers supporting the opposition have surrendered and claimed they were involved in the uprising only after being deceived by soldiers who had deserted in the past weeks and months. Perhaps the most worrisome report for Guaido and the opposition comes from a well known Venezuelan reporter who claims the launch date was pushed forward amid rumors circulating of Guaido’s imminent arrest. The military support was not as strong as expected, or perhaps the military backed out almost entirely.
In any case, it seems the majority of Venezuelan soldiers have either not yet chosen a side or continue to support Maduro. The coming hours should offer strong indications of the direction the attempted uprising will take, and what the fate of Juan Guaido will be.