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Risk of a 'Caribbean Syria'

All Eyes on the Army in Venezuela Power Struggle

With support from Washington, Venezuelan opposition politician Juan Guaidó has declared himself the country's new president. Ultimately, though, the military will determine the outcome of his power struggle with incumbent Nicolás Maduro.

FEDERICO PARRA / AFP

Self-appointed Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó

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Tuesday, 1/29/2019   10:40 AM

A few hours after declaring himself interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó announced his first act in his new role: In a letter carrying the state seal, he called for all diplomatic representatives to remain in the country. United States President Donald Trump had earlier recognized 35-year-old Guaidó as the country's leader, prompting President Nicolás Maduro to announce that all U.S. diplomats would have to leave Venezuela within 72 hours.

But last Wednesday evening, Washington announced that the diplomats would stay -- an initial win for Guaidó. His second: Even several days later, Maduro has not moved to arrest him.

Guaidó had signed the document "President of the National Assembly and President (E) of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." The E stood for "encargado," or "mandated," an indication that he would only occupy the position until new elections could take place. Venezuela, in other words, now has two presidents and two centers of power -- on paper, at least. It is an untenable situation.

Venezuela's opposition hasn't been able to force the socialists from the country's leadership in 20 years. Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer six years ago, won all his elections easily. His successor, Nicolás Maduro, has resorted to tricks and manipulation to stay in power.

But now Guaidó, a politician from a new generation and someone almost nobody knew until a few weeks ago, has declared himself president. The Jan. 23 coup was carefully planned, with assistance from two men: popular Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo López and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

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Rubio, the Republican son of Cuban immigrants, has been working to bring about regime change for years -- not only in Venezuela, but also in Cuba and Nicaragua.

The Miami Herald wrote that Rubio, in engineering the recognition of Guaidó as president, had scored a victory for his political agenda in Latin America. It wrote that he had untiringly fought to increase international pressure on Maduro's regime. On Jan. 15, in the U.S. Senate, Rubio had publicly called for Guaidó to be recognized as the legitimate president, and the ultimate decision, according to the Miami Herald, was made at a White House meeting on Tuesday evening that included Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser John Bolton, as well as Rubio and other representatives from Florida.

Guaidó's other backer is Leopoldo López, the founder of the opposition party Voluntad Popular (VP). It put forth young Guaidó as a compromise candidate for the position of parliamentary president, the vote for which was held on Jan. 5. Although López has been under house arrest since 2017, he reportedly counsels Guaidó several times a day.

The Man Who Could Topple Maduro

The man who hopes to topple Maduro grew up in the port city of La Guaira, near Caracas. His father was a pilot, his mother a housewife. In 1999, after several weeks of rain, his home province experienced heavy flooding and landslides and hundreds of people died.

Guairdo's family survived, but the natural disaster had a major impact on him: "It forced us to let go of material things, but it also brought us closer together." He began studying as an industrial engineer in Caracas, where he joined the student movement protesting against President Hugo Chávez. In 2007, when Guaidó was one of the movement's leaders, the protests escalated. During this time, he met López, the mayor of a wealthy district in Caracas, and helped him found his opposition party.

FEDERICO PARRA / AFP

Riot police clash with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas, on Jan. 21, 2019.

Guaidó is married and his daughter was born during the protest wave of 2017, when young people spent weeks on the barricades protesting against Maduro. Over 160 people died in the unrest and Guaidó himself was struck in the neck by rubber bullets. Whereas other opposition members went into exile, he chose to remain in Venezuela. He only became known nationally when he convened citizens' meetings a few weeks ago in which he presented his ideas for social change.

Guaidó was too young to take part in the failed coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in 2002, and that has worked to his advantage. At the time, many opposition leaders lost credibility because they conspired with Washington. This time, cooperation with the Americans is out in the open, but it doesn't seem to be hurting the transitional president. International recognition appears to be protecting him -- for now, at least.

It's primarily thanks to Marco Rubio that most Latin American countries and the Organization of American States (OAS) were so quick to recognize Guaidó. Rubio maintains close contact with the OAS, and it also didn't hurt that right-wing presidents were elected in Brazil and Colombia last year. They fear that more refugees will come if Maduro remains in power: Over 3 million Venezuelans have already fled abroad, with most going to Colombia.

Steadily Growing Pressure

Pressure has been steadily growing against Maduro in recent days. In a speech given before the Senate, Rubio proposed expelling Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S., freezing the regime's assets and installing a new government with the aim of holding new elections.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has called for "an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections." And the EU also warned Saturday that it would recognize Guaidó as the country's new leader if Maduro does not call for fresh elections within eight days. Over the weekend, Israel joined the United States, Canada and most Latin American countries in recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela's leader. Maduro, though, has lost all credibility and the election held last year is widely viewed as having been manipulated.

And self-proclaimed president Guaidó needs supporters within the power apparatus to enable him to call new elections. But that could be difficult given that his power-grab last Wednesday is not obviously in accordance with the country's constitution, with the passage that Guaidó has cited not quite as clear as his supporters claim. The constitution does allow the parliamentary president to assume control of the government in instances when the president becomes "permanently unavailable" due to "physical or medical disability," for example. But Maduro is neither ill nor incapable of governing. It's just that the National Assembly doesn't recognize Maduro as the legitimately elected leader of the country.

Ultimately, it will be up to the military to decide the fate of the self-proclaimed president. On Sunday, Guaidó sought to woo the military at a demonstration in Caracas by pledging an amnesty law for any soldiers who turn and back him. So far, though, there have been no signs that the armed forces will turn on Maduro. There have only been isolated rebellions in the lower ranks, in part because soldiers are suffering as much from the supply crisis as the civilian population.

The pressure on the armed forces is "extreme," wrote Francisco Toro, founder of the Caracas Chronicles blog. "It's likely most army officers probably want Maduro out. But no officer wants to act first. They would risk prison, torture or death," he tweeted.

On Thursday evening, the top commanders of the Venezuelan Army announced they would maintain their support for Maduro. "We won't do anything that violates the constitution," said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.

In the past, Maduro never shied away from arresting regime opponents when it seemed opportune. However, in the case of Guaidó, doing so would be risky, potentially triggering riots at home and unpredictable consequences abroad. So far, he has only announced that he will withdraw his diplomats from the U.S.

'All Options Are on the Table'

Senator Marco Rubio said Wednesday that if Maduro responds with violence, "all options are on the table" -- including a military operation. But there are still no signs of a military confrontation brewing with the U.S. There are still a few other means of exerting pressure. Trump's government is considering the possibility of imposing an oil embargo on Venezuela and putting it on the list of countries that provide support for terrorists. And a high-ranking White House official says they "haven't even scratched the surface" in terms of possible sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that Washington is prepared to provide more than $20 million in humanitarian aid to Venezuela. He has also criticized governments that have backed the country so far.

Blogger Toro argues that the most dangerous scenario would be if the military split, with only some shifting their support to Guaidó. That could lead to a "Caribbean Syria" type situation, with a civil war between opposing armed groups.

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