From obscurity to obscurity: The strange case of Juan Guaidó


In November 2019, Bolivian President Evo Morales was ousted following a constitutional and electoral crisis. The regime change was swift: domestic protests culminated in the police, army and trade unions requesting Morales’ resignation. Fallout in Bolivia continues, but regime change from Morales to senator Jeanine Anez was relatively swift, and stands in contrast to the debacle in Venezuela that has been ongoing since 2018. Drifting in and out of the news despite constant severity, the opposition’s overthrow of Nicolas Maduro’s regime has failed to materialise.

A year ago, Maduro’s fall looked imminent. The collapse of Venezuela’s economy had brought mass starvation and a refugee crisis. As accusations arose surrounding Maduro’s electoral legitimacy, Venezuelans were being killed in protests. Then, in January 2019 Juan Guaido emerged as chairman of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Guaido declared himself president, and is now recognised by over 50 countries. Defying a court order, he left Venezuela to drum up support for humanitarian aid and ran rings round Maduro. These escapades made him a media darling, yet one year later Guaido is again on tour, giving speeches at Davos and attending the state of the union, still president in name only. Maduro controls Venezuela, a stark fact that appears indefinite.

The reality is that Guaido’s coup has already failed, and it failed back in April when protests reached a tipping-point. To succeed, Guaido had to win over the military, and whilst the odd soldier was seen amongst the protestors, crucial officers weren’t. If failure in this crucial matter wasn’t enough, the events of April made it too easy to characterize him as an American stooge. Then-defence secretary John Bolton complained that senior figures had not followed through on their words, and photos of Guaido alongside Colombian rightwing paramilitaries then emerged in September off the back of several sleaze allegations, tarnishing his image.

Compare this to Maduro. Economic pragmatism means the dollar is now circulating freely around Caracas and wealthy areas are booming. Maduro has even hinted at allowing foreign investment into the oil industry. President Trump continues to back Guaido for now and is taking a tough line on the Maduro government with further sanctions. Then again, the foreign policy of Trump in regards to his enemies is about as consistent as the value of the Bolivar, and the US may be tempted to accept a deal with a more compliant Venezuela.

Maduro has also been brutal. The number of people killed by police reportedly numbers in the thousands, whilst the UN has accused Venezuela of systematically abusing prisoners. In the face of all this, Guaido has rejected claims he’s losing momentum as ‘absolutely false’, but the words ring hollow. The National Assembly has been sidelined by the new Constituent Assembly, a puppet-parliament. Guaido has now also been replaced as chair with the help of opposition members who hope negotiations might solve the crisis. This is now being contested in the Supreme Court, where protracted arguments could bog Guaido down further.

With the failure of Guaido, press coverage has reduced to a trickle. Initiative now lies with the Venezuelan people, but while Maduro is unpopular, is there enough support behind a coup? Before being catapulted into office Guaido was an obscure politician, and has proved better at cultivating a twitter following than a mass movement. Meanwhile, further US sanctions and rhetoric provide a unifying threat. With Maduro’s reforms, it increasingly looks less like democracy is coming to Venezuela, and more like a new model of authoritarian capitalism. With the prospect of vast oil reserves for sale, how long will western opposition last?

Image - Flickr (OEA - OAS)

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