Great move. Well played. What next?

The events of January 23 were a victory for the once divided and dispirited Venezuelan opposition. But with Maduro so far refusing to step aside and a rogues’ gallery of governments lining up to support him, could the U.S. have stumbled into an international showdown?


  • Christopher Sabatini

    Dr. Christopher Sabatini, is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, and was formerly a lecturer in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. Chris is also on the advisory boards of Harvard University’s LASPAU, the Advisory Committee for Human Rights Watch's Americas Division, and of the Inter-American Foundation. He is also an HFX Fellow at the Halifax International Security Forum. He is a frequent contributor to policy journals and newspapers and appears in the media and on panels on issues related to Latin America and foreign policy. Chris has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2015, Chris founded and directed a new research non-profit, Global Americas and edited its news and opinion website. From 2005 to 2014 Chris was senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) and the founder and editor-in-chief of the hemispheric policy magazine Americas Quarterly (AQ). At the AS/COA, Dr. Sabatini chaired the organization’s rule of law and Cuba working groups. Prior to that, he was director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the National Endowment for Democracy, and a diplomacy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, working at the US Agency for International Development’s Center for Democracy and Governance. He provides regular interviews for major media outlets, and has a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia.

It was a bold and well-prepared move. The conditions were set in Caracas when the opposition underwent a much-needed (and overdue) reboot. The key was the decision by the fractious, opposition leadership to elect a fresh-faced, 35-year-old Juan Guaidó to represent them and serve as the president of the National Assembly. Then, on the day of anticipated protests, January 23rd—or E23 as it’s now being euphemistically referred to in Venezuela—the National Assembly declared Guaidó the interim president of the country, claiming that under the constitution, he was the legitimate president. As the argument went, Nicolas Maduro’s clearly fraudulent re-election in May 2018 represented an illegitimate accession to power.

In short order, more than 11 governments—including the U.S.—and the Organization of American States (OAS) declared their support for Guaidó as the president of country, as hundreds of thousands if not millions of anti-Maduro, pro-democracy protestors poured onto the country’s streets in large and small cities alike.

But with Maduro continuing to refuse to step down, the fast-paced events of E23 set up two presidents, one with the support of a broad sector of democratic governments and the other—Maduro—counting in his corner Bolivia, China, Cuba, Russia, Syria, and Turkey—a veritable rogues’ gallery. Now suddenly the showdown between Guaidó and Maduro has become a potential high-stakes global standoff with each leader’s respective international allies in their corner. It’s unclear what happens next if sectors of Maduro’s government, including the all-important military, refuse to defect to the opposition (as Guaidó, the U.S. and others have urged them to do) and the unpopular mustachioed illegitimate president refuses to leave.

For now, though, the democratic opposition is energized and people feel for the first time in a long while that there’s hope. That’s no small change. By the same token, for the first time in a long time, Maduro is on his back heels, lamely trying to assert authority and defiance. But he looks more like a wounded animal than a president (even a usurper president). And this too is good.

Even if change doesn’t happen quickly, there is visible sense of fear and confusion on the part of Maduro. I imagine too that behind the scenes he is madly checking with generals, police chiefs, political allies and even his personal assistants to test their loyalty. The massive protests and the political changes that got them there should fuel Venezuelans’ hope for change, if not now then soon.

But what does the U.S. do if this gamble fails to budge Maduro? While other governments signed on to declare their support for Guaidó as the legitimate president and refuse to recognize Maduro, the United States was the loudest and most forward leaning. There was the speech/bad Spanish lesson from Vice President Mike Pence statement the day before the protests, the White House declaration of support, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department’s defiant refusal to remove U.S. diplomats after Maduro angrily declared them persona non grata.

The administration has maintained that all options are still on the table, presumably including military intervention. There have been numerous articles on why U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be foolhardy. Nevertheless, the White House has initiated a process where it’s expected to help deliver in some way. Yes, there are intermediate steps, such as enacting an embargo that includes oil exports and placing the country on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (for which objective observers have yet to see credible, substantiated evidence). The former would choke off Venezuela’s access to hard currency from U.S. purchases of its oil and refined products. The latter would impose a broader set of sanctions on public officials and could lead to further steps to isolate the hobbled economy.

But does Maduro really care? If he can keep at least a core of military commanders loyal and control his shrinking cadre of political allies, he will stay in power even as his citizens are driven into more misery. He’s shown that he doesn’t give a wick about their suffering or the collapse of his country. At this point his presidency is almost a suicidal dare to much of the global community, intended, in particular, to taunt and provoke the United States. Will the U.S. continue to ramp up its own rhetoric and sanctions until there are fewer and fewer options?  And if and when it does reach that option will it really pull the trigger on an intervention? It’s tough to say, but these standoffs develop their own rolling momentum, and with a White House that thrives on macho bravura, it’s conceivable that when they reach the end of diplomatic and economic sticks they may hurtle themselves into what would be a colossal, historic mistake.

I guess this makes it all the more important to hope that this latest, well-planned gambit works. And soon.

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