Self-declared president Juan Guaidó comes from the right-wing, US-backed student movement that tried to subvert Hugo Chávez’s government.
By Tim Gill and Rebecca Hanson
On February 4, more than a dozen European countries recognized the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s legitimate president. This decision came almost two weeks after the United States, Canada, and most countries in Latin America backed Guaidó’s claim to the presidential office. Despite continued Chinese and Russian support for Nicolás Maduro’s government, the international community is quickly isolating it, as never before.
A strange coalition of left- and right-wing political parties has formed to assist Guaidó, and knee-jerk support from both pundits and politicians who profess concern about the country’s humanitarian crisis has generated an allegiance to this little-known politician and his call for Maduro’s resignation. Many of Guaidó’s supporters have cited Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution as grounds for his assumption of the presidency, arguing that the unfair nature of the 2018 presidential election has rendered the Maduro government illegitimate.
There is no question that Venezuelans are suffering and want to see a change in governance. Maduro is wildly unpopular, even among the working class, and many have grown tired of the economic crisis that has exploded under his watch. This doesn’t mean, though, that citizens necessarily support the opposition or, worse, US military intervention. Many continue to identify as chavista, and even those who have shed this identification continue to acknowledge that the Bolivarian Revolution once improved their livelihoods. Those improvements, though, have largely evaporated under Maduro.
Since some of the most powerful countries in the world have now decided to back Guaidó, there is good reason to ask who he is, what sort of future he represents for Venezuela, and whether domestic support for Guaidó’s call for Maduro’s resignation equals support for him as leader of the country.
Maduro might not possess widespread legitimacy, but his government retains control of much of the state apparatus and remains far more entrenched than many opposition members and their supporters would like to believe. In many ways, chavismo remains dominant and has reshaped Venezuelan society. Whether they like it or not, the opposition will not be able to entirely overturn the legacy of the Bolivarian Revolution or erase the fondness that many citizens still have for the late Hugo Chávez and the policies he implemented as president. Some members of the opposition seem to realize this.
There should not be any doubt, though, about what the United States, alongside other countries within and beyond the Western Hemisphere, are pushing for in Venezuela: a military overthrow of the Maduro government. The situation is messy, and there are multiple interpretations concerning the origins of the political-economic crisis in Venezuela, as well as how to solve the political crisis and reboot the Venezuelan economy. But Washington and its allies seem intent on some basic interventionist strategies. Nearly every day over the past two weeks, both National Security Adviser John Bolton and Republican Senator Marco Rubio have used their Twitter accounts to call on the military to align with Guaidó, “defend democracy,” and oust Maduro.
For now, the United States has seemed to settle for imposing harsh sanctions on Venezuela that portend economic catastrophe. These sanctions target the lifeblood of the economy: the state oil company (PDVSA) and its sales to the United States. The aim, of course, is to weaken Maduro’s position by taking away the government’s most important source of revenue. But this could very easily backfire. Venezuelan citizens might blame the United States for worsening the economic crisis, though it won’t automatically translate into support for Maduro. And it certainly won’t help build support for international mediation or fondness for the United States on the part of most Venezuelans.
If these sanctions do break the government, it is likely some portion of the population will feel that whatever comes next is the product of coercion. If the opposition centered around Guaidó then wins a presidential election, that government may face questions regarding its own legitimacy. Even for many who do not support Maduro, anti-imperialist sentiments run deep; elections that take place as a result of US strong-arming will be tainted by these dynamics.
Guaidó’s announcement assuming the role of interim president generated a wave of support from some capitals as well as the Organization of American States. Now the crisis is in a stalemate. Indeed, as Francisco Toro notes, the United States, in granting diplomatic recognition to Guaidó’s “government,” has created a precarious situation by confusing a normative judgment about who should run the country with the objective fact of who does run the country—that is, who actually has control over national territory and the state apparatus. If this gamble, this all-or-nothing approach, does not go as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, NSA adviser Bolton, and others hope it will, what will happen in a few weeks, if Maduro remains president? Will Washington continue with economic sanctions and fall into a pattern similar to its decades-long standoff with Cuba? Will it take to exploding cigars and other absurd and criminal plots of subversion?
The United States now has little room to play a constructive role in interim efforts, such as the negotiations proposed by Mexico and Uruguay to bring the two sides to the table. In fact, Washington’s intransigence only bolsters opposition intransigence. Indeed, since January 23, we have seen escalation upon escalation, potentially setting the stage for violent conflict, even civil war.
WASHINGTON’S CAMPAIGN: ‘DIVIDING CHAVISMO’ AND ‘PROTECTING VITAL US BUSINESS’
Following the opposition’s victory in 2015 parliamentary elections, opposition-party leaders agreed to a rotating cast of leadership within the National Assembly. In 2019, Guaidó, representing the Voluntad Popular party, assumed the position of National Assembly president. Very few know much about the 35-year-old Guaidó. Indeed, a common remark about him from Venezuelans is that he has “come out of nowhere” (viene de la nada).
In fact, Guaidó is from one of the most hard-line political parties among the opposition. While some parties have sought to displace chavismo through an electoral route, Leopoldo López, one of the founders of Voluntad Popular, led protests in 2014—many of which became violent—demanding Maduro’s exit. After Maduro’s first election, in 2013, López justified undemocratic approaches to removing him by declaring his government illegitimate. One of the few things we do know about Guaidó is that López has been one of his political mentors; some have even suggested López is continuing to call the shots while still under house arrest in suburban Caracas.
More than anything else, Guaidó appears to be a product of the right-wing, middle-class student movement that developed in opposition to the Chávez government in the mid-to-late 2000s. This movement, which took to the streets of Caracas to demand the ouster of Chávez, received much of its funding and training from Washington.
The following reporting is based on Tim Gill’s extensive research on US foreign policy toward Venezuela under Chávez, and the ways in which Washington sought to“promote democracy.” Gill conducted interviews with numerous US state actors and members Venezuelan civil society.
Over the course of several years, Washington worked with middle-class, opposition-aligned students through the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Office for Transition Initiatives (OTI). Indeed, OTI often works in war-torn countries that are, as the office’s name indicates, experiencing a “political transition,” such as Burma, Iraq, and Libya. When Gill asked a former high-ranking USAID member why OTI worked in Venezuela, he stated that OTI are “the special forces of the democracy assistance community.” Another USAID functionary told Gill that OTI allowed the United States to provide funds to opposition members in Venezuela faster than if they used traditional channels.
What were the ultimate objectives of USAID/OTI in Venezuela during the years they worked with the student movement? US Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield specifically laid them out in a secret embassy cable secured by Chelsea Manning and released by WikiLeaks: “1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.”
These efforts initially focused on setting up community groups in working-class neighborhoods, which appeared neutral but were actually operated by opposition activists. Since USAID/OTI could not directly fund political parties, they worked with party leaders, including those from Voluntad Popular, to help opposition activists set up these community groups in neighborhoods where chavistas were predominant. The groups, which claimed to promote and provide training related to participatory democracy, ultimately aimed to put opposition activists in contact with Chávez supporters in an effort to generate chavista support for their political parties. One USAID/OTI contractor who helped to organize these groups in Venezuela explained to Gill:
We even developed new NGOs that were looking very neutral in the eyes of the government; by them we can help people in the poor neighborhoods. They looked neutral because they had no affiliation with no political party. They were people from the neighborhood, even though they were opposition. They create the organizations with no past relation to political parties. So when they worked in the barrios, they looked very neutral. So we gave them money, but they succeeded in helping democratic values. They were pulling people away from Chávez in a subtle manner. We were telling them what democracy is, and showing them what democracy means. We developed very nice materials and took care of every word to give them, so it didn’t look like we were sympathizing with the opposition.
The campaign didn’t work out as planned. Chávez continued to garner support among the popular classes, and many barrio inhabitants eventually caught on that the community groups were organized by the opposition, so most stopped attending.
Thereafter, USAID/OTI largely shifted its efforts toward the burgeoning student movement that developed in the mid-2000s—the movement in which Guaidó “cut his political teeth,” according to a report in The Guardian. A former USAID/OTI member who helped devise US efforts in Venezuela said the “objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids…that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.” In other words, USAID/OTI sought to take advantage of racialized fear of Chávez to organize middle-class youth around a long-term strategy to defeat him.