Venezuela’s Opposition Crosses the Rubicon

Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, was sworn in today as the country’s interim president. The controversial move was expected after the opposition-controlled legislature last week invoked articles 233, 333 and 350 of the Constitution declaring Nicolás Maduro an “usurper.” President Trump quickly announced that Washington recognizes Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Similar announcements came from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, and other Latin American countries, as well as Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States. This could well be the beginning of the end of the Maduro dictatorship.

Until recently things seemed hopeless for the Venezuelan people, who are suffering from an historic economic meltdown and a staggering humanitarian crisis. The opposition was maimed and deeply divided, with many of its leaders behind bars, in exile, or simply discredited after years of fruitless political maneuvering. But things started to change this year after the 35-year-old Guaidó was elected president of the National Assembly. His fresh and energetic leadership has reignited the support of Venezuelans, 80% of whom want Maduro gone, according to polls.

Moreover, on January 10 Maduro was sworn in for a new six-year term after an election widely seen as fraudulent last May. Several Western governments, including the United States, the European Union, Japan, Canada, and most Latin American countries, refused to recognize Maduro, declaring instead that the National Assembly was the only legitimate political institution in Venezuela.

Things are beginning to fall in place. Targeted Western sanctions are making life increasingly unbearable for key figures within the regime who can’t enjoy their loot outside Venezuela. Even though it is unrealistic to expect that international sanctions by themselves will do the job, it is likely that they will help to crack chavismo on the margins.

The end game, of course, is the support of the armed forces. The top brass of the military is deeply involved in corruption, smuggling and drug-trafficking. That, plus the infiltration of the Cuban secret services among the rank and file, has until now made it very difficult for the military to turn on Maduro. However, the National Assembly recently passed legislation to grant immunity to those officers who facilitate a democratic transition. Western governments should support these efforts.

January 23 is an emblematic date in Venezuela. Back in 1958 people took it to the streets calling for an end to the dictatorship of Marco Pérez Jiménez. Shortly afterwards he was on a plane to the Dominican Republic. Those events are not lost in the minds of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who are back in the streets demanding the end of the current dictatorship and the restoration of their democracy. The international community should keep the pressure on Maduro and his thugs, send an unequivocal message to the military, and support the new legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.