Caracas Quandary: After April 30 Debacle, What Do Guaidó And U.S. Do Now?

May 6, 2019

It’s been a week since Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for the overthrow of authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro. That effort failed when top military leaders balked at joining him. But it sparked renewed anti-government unrest and showed cracks in the military's loyalty to the socialist regime – which is widely blamed for dismantling Venezuela’s democracy and destroying its economy.

On this week's Latin America Report, WLRN's Luis Hernandez and Americas correspondent Tim Padgett talk about why Guaidó’s military uprising fizzled – and where Venezuela’s ongoing crisis is headed now.

HERNANDEZ: Why did Juan Guaidó suddenly declare last Tuesday morning that he had enough support from Venezuela’s military to drive Maduro out – if in fact he didn’t?

PADGETT: Because he thought he did. And now we’re trying to figure out why he was so sure he did. There’s been a lot of talk there and here in the U.S. about assurances from figures in Venezuela’s military high command – including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino – that they were ready to jump ship and join Guaidó. And so Guaidó goes to this airbase in Caracas, surrounded by a handful of rebel soldiers, and he tells Venezuelans this is the day, this the “final phase of Operation Liberty." But now even Guaidó has admitted he vastly overestimated the military brass’s mindset.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino in Caracas.
Credit Ariana Cubillos / AP

People around him as well as people in the Trump Administration are suggesting he was fooled into believing the military was ready to abandon Maduro. Or that Maduro was ready to leave Venezuela but the Russians told him to stay. There are theories all over the place. But I’m also hearing, in conversations with people close to Guaidó as well as Venezuelan expat leaders here, that one reason Guaidó was so sure he had the military’s backing is that his mentor, Leopoldo López, told him to believe that.

López you’ll remember was standing beside Guaidó last Tuesday morning. He's also a top opposition leader, very popular with expats here in South Florida; but he was arrested and thrown in jail five years ago for simply leading anti-government demonstrations. He's been under house arrest – but suddenly last week he was freed by the head of Venezuela’s intelligence police, the Sebin, who we now know did defect from Maduro. Based on that, López apparently convinced Guaidó that Venezuela’s entire national security apparatus was poised to defect.

READ MORE: Venezuela's Guaidó Is on a Long-Haul Mission. Too Bad His U.S. Cheerleaders Aren't

Maduro’s regime put a new arrest warrant out for López, who’s now holed up in the Spanish embassy in Caracas with his wife and young daughter. What’s likely to happen to him?

He’s likely to remain in the Spanish embassy for quite some time. Spain has said it will not hand him back to the Maduro regime; and expats here who are close to López tell me he has no plans to ask for refuge in Spain or anywhere else outside Venezuela. They say he wants to stay in Caracas and help Guaidó’s fight. The question, though, is whether he really helps Guaidó’s fight at this point.

So what are you hearing it will take to get the Venezuelan military high command to decide to abandon Maduro, let Guaidó assume the presidency and allow new elections?

We're hearing Venezuelan military leaders feel if they do facilitate a return to democracy, they should be allowed to stay in the country and perhaps even keep their positions. That's going to be a tough nut to negotiate.

That’s obviously the most important question. But it doesn’t seem to be a question either Guaidó or the U.S. are taking seriously enough. Guaidó and the opposition have offered the military a degree of amnesty if they turn against Maduro. And that’s important – because we’re talking about a military that’s accused not only of egregious human rights violations but of drug trafficking. There’s even a drug cartel named for the Venezuelan military chiefs who allegedly facilitate narco-trafficking through Venezuela.

So why hasn’t that offer of amnesty been enough to convince the top military brass? For one thing, Maduro has the Cuban intelligence apparatus keeping a scary eye on these Venezuelan military leaders. That makes it harder for them to maneuver. Another possible factor: expats here who say they've talked with people close to Defense Minister Padrino say military leaders feel that if they do facilitate a return to democracy in Venezuela, they should not be forced into exile. They want to be allowed to stay in Venezuela and perhaps even keep their military positions.

That’s going to be a tough nut to negotiate. But Guaidó and the U.S. may have no choice but to take the time and work something out with guys like Padrino in that regard.

OPENING MILITARY CRACKS

The Trump Administration and other Guaidó supporters in Washington have been criticized for creating unrealistic expectations about a quick overthrow of Maduro. Do you think they’re changing their approach after last week?

As I said, I don’t think they have much choice. Last week was the third time since January – when Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president with the backing of the U.S. and more than 50 other countries – the third time that he’s told the world the military is ready to come over to his side. And it was the third time he didn’t deliver. Both Guaidó and especially the Trump Administration have unfortunately fed this notion that regime change in Venezuela was going to happen overnight. So every time it doesn't, Guaidó and his opposition movement lose a little credibility.

Which is sad because that movement has created real cracks in the military’s loyalty to Maduro – and it definitely created more cracks last week. Most Venezuela experts say Guaidó and the U.S. now need to take the time to keep opening those cracks: keep Venezuelans on the streets marching against this regime; let the U.S. and international economic sanctions begin to bleed the regime of what cash it has left, since it has destroyed Venezuela’s oil industry; and keep negotiating with the military so that when the tipping point comes they actually will be on board with Guaidó instead of Guaidó just guessing they’re on board.  

An anti-government protester in front of a burning bus during street unrest in Caracas last week.
Credit Fernando Llano / AP

Once again we’re hearing the Trump Administration – and Republicans like Florida Senator Rick Scott – beat the drum of a possible U.S. military intervention in Venezuela. Is that helping or hurting Guaidó’s cause?

Most diplomatic experts say it's hurting his cause. For starters, it makes this look like Washington's show instead of Guaidó’s show, and that too hurts Guaidó’s credibility. And what’s more it raises the suspicion that Trump and the Republicans are in this as much if not more to win votes in the 2020 election – because they’re also promising that the downfall of the socialist regime in Venezuela will lead to the demise of leftist regimes in Cuba and Nicaragua. They can tell U.S. voters they cleaned up the hemisphere.

The U.S. military rhetoric also alienates our Latin American partners in this effort to pressure Maduro – and their role in the critical effort to negotiate the military’s defection. And you can say it also hurts the U.S.’s credibility – because we’re very unlikely to follow through on that threat of U.S. military intervention. And if we did follow through with it, military experts say we’d just be creating an Iraq-style quagmire for ourselves.

In the meantime, does it look like Venezuelans are revved up again to follow Guaidó into the streets for more massive anti-Maduro marches?

That’s a good question. I think it’s going to take some time to see how much street-level enthusiasm last week’s debacle cost Guaidó and his movement.