The Farcical Self-Inflicted Disaster that is the Venezuelan Opposition
April 30th was supposed to be Maduro's "final day" according to Juan Guaido, the President of Venezuela's suspended National Assembly and "interim President" of the country. Flanked by around two dozen military officers, who later turned out to make up around a third of his committed support within the Venezuelan armed forces, and Leopoldo Lopez, a former Caracas mayor who had escaped from his 18 months of house arrest for "inciting unrest" through "subliminal messages" Guaido did his best to convince the world that a military coup was underway. Such an effort is understandable on a tactical level. Military coups often run on momentum. A minuscule number of soldiers can carry them out if they can provide the impression that the coup is likely to succeed. But that success almost always involves successfully senior officials, ideally of the government one wants to overthrow, but at the very least of the military such that they cannot organize resistance or cast doubt on the prospects of success. The traditional press conference usually only follows the successful seizure of power in the center, in order to advertise its accomplishment, and thereby discourage resistance elsewhere.
Observers could be forgiven for feeling there something off about Guaido's coup press conference, as if those hoping to oust Maduro had forgotten a few vital steps in the How To manual for military coups. Its rare the military begs civilians for help. Its also rare that foreign leaders beg senior military leaders to join a coup as promised, rather than praise them for having reluctantly already done so. But that was the state of the surreal press conference by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, when he urged senior Venezuelan officials by name to defect, in what was at best a last ditch attempt to compromise them. By the end of the day, American officials were blaming Russian pep talks for the failure of the coup, while Guaido was insisting it had not failed. Three days later American leaders are floating all options "short of the ultimate" in public while privately conceding on Fox News that there is no "Plan B".
In the mix of delusion, wishful thinking, and desperate cynicism which now dominates the effort to remove Nicholas Maduro, the only individual to show a clear grasp of the situation appears to have been Lopez, who immediately headed to the Chilean Embassy after Guaido's press conference to request asylum, before moving to more spacious accommodation with the Spanish. The man with the most experience of anti-Chavista coups had evidently taken one look around the announcement of this one, and recognized a lost cause when he saw it.
Whether Guaido or his international backers realize they were a lost cause is another matter. Guaido apparently was in consultation with both the United States and military insiders, but informed neither about this latest "coup" which in fact was triggered not by the adherence of senior military officials but by the defection of those who had previously promised support. Contrary to charges that Guaido was an American/Brazilian puppet, the reverse seems to have been true. International supporters seem to have given Guaido a blank cheque to utilize his judgement, and as late as Thursday Bolton was still insisting to Fox and Friends that "“Our judgment is that the overwhelming number of military service members in the country support Juan Guaidó and the opposition,” It’s just a matter of time before they come over the opposition and some of that could happen today.”
One would like to condemn Guaido for these failures. His approach has been not to seize power, but to wait, a like a Bourbon prince, for it to be restored to him, its rightful holder, whether by the military, the Venezuelan people, or the international community. The idea that power has to either be taken or negotiated appears beyond him. There is an intellectual understanding that he needs regime officials to defect, but no appreciation of what would be required to bring that about. Guaido has little capital to offer. Amnesty may be good, but even that is dubious given the behavior of the opposition over the last five years, and his own position is due to his election as head of a legislature which took place after its suspension.
Yet Guaido's weaknesses are those of the Venezuelan opposition as a whole, which has followed for the last four years a policy designed to make a peaceful transfer of power, always challenging, next to impossible. It is easy to sloganeer about how "El Dictator" would never have handed over power, but he does not represent the regime, and that ignores that the opposition is today further away from power than it was 18 months ago, and vastly further away than it was four years ago, much less even a decade ago. In fact it faces its worst prospects almost since Chavez took office, and the vast majority of that is due to its own errors.
It is easy to forget that the 2013 Presidential Election saw Nicholas Maduro win by only 50.6% to 49.1% over opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the official results. Fraud likely took place, and it is almost certain the uneven playing field created by the government made up the difference, but that did not demonstrate the futility of the electoral path to change. Electoral change in semi-democratic states is almost always the result of a combination of electoral pressure and negotiated concessions, and countries in countries like Malaysia where the idea of a fair election was foreign, "strong" performances by the opposition in one election provided the basis on which the next election saw a clear opposition victory. In countries divided between a "ruling party" and an "opposition" with the former united mostly by a desire to remain in power and the latter by a desire to destroy the former, an abrupt transition is impossible. But equally, the cost of a ruling party in a democratic system remaining in power at all costs in the face of popular and international pressure is often too great. So there are strong incentives to find a way for the opposition to win and take power which do not result in a zero-sum loss of everything by the old ruling elite.
In Venezuela, the 2013 Presidential election appeared to represent the start of such a process. Contrary to charges that Maduro or his supporters never would have given up power, the former may have been but the latter was dubious, many Chavistas publicly accepted that Capriles would likely be the next President, and that the opposition would win the next Presidential election. The public acceptance in Chavista circles of the prospect of an "opposition" President was huge, and it was general in 2013 to 2015. The 2015 National Assembly elections saw the opposition take a two thirds majority. The dubious 69% reelection of Nicholas Maduro in 2018 shows that the regime can rig elections if it needs to. That the opposition was "allowed" to win 49% in 2013 and then 56% in December of 2015 shows that regime was clearly willing to concede the possibility of an opposition victory.
Yet the behavior of the opposition now proved decisive in making such a transition impossible. The opposition victory in the National Assembly elections created the opportunity for cohabitation between an opposition legislature and Chavista executive, giving the former the chance to set policy, the latter the ability to protect themselves, and both the opportunity to work together. Maduro, personally of course had an incentive to wreck this, but in the event he didn't need to. From the night of their victory, the opposition made clear that rather than merely winning the legislature, they saw the vote as requiring the removal of the entire government, and pledged to impeach Maduro and the entire cabinet at their first meeting over the 2013 election. This was a declaration of war. There could be no compromise. Even the most moderate and conciliatory Chavistas, even ones who wanted to remove Maduro, could not allow the opposition to impeach him without Chavista support. That would remain the elimination of their leverage to protect themselves or reach any deal.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court, conveniently stacked by the outgoing National Assembly now moved to neutralize this threat, by calling into question the credentials of three opposition MPs, This decision left the opposition with an overwhelming majority, but short of the two thirds needed to impeach the President, cabinet, and court. The decision was legally dubious, but that was beside the point. In the situation it was politically necessary, not just for self-defense of the Chavistas, but for there to be any chance of moderate Chavistas and opposition supporters reaching any agreement on a peaceful transfer of power. Rather than being a hard-line power grab, it was a bid by the moderate to push both sides to the table.
Instead, the National Assembly behaved like its members were still on the streets fighting some resistance struggle. They refused to accept the authority of the court, swore in the disputed members anyway, and refused to pass legislation or deal with the government, instead retreating into a fantasy where they had removed the other branches and setup their own. It is not important whether they were morally correct or not. It was politically stupid and suicidal. Not only did the National Assembly make its own break with legality by refusing the Supreme Court ruling, thereby making it harder to question the equally illegal calling of the Constituent Assembly in 2017, Presidential elections in 2018, and even Guaido's position(he was elected by a body whose membership was illegal by including the three disputed members). Most importantly, as with the Democratic decision in the United States to filibuster Gorsuch not on the merits of his appointment(which might have won some Republican moderate support given the ideological drift of the court) but rather on the basis that they would not accept any nominee unless they were the Democrat Merrick Garland, which left no Republican with any choice but to nuke the filibuster, the behavior of the Opposition National Assembly rendered constitutional government impossible. That the Maduro regime resorted to unconstitutional measures is therefore understandable. That having successfully done so, they used them not to renew negotiations with the opposition on a transition from a position of strength, but to negate the need to contemplate any transition whatsoever , has been a disaster for Venezuela but was enabled by the situation they found themselves in.
Having forced the Venezuelan government into unconstitutional measures in 2017, the opposition responded by boycotting elections, including the 2018 presidential race. Was the election almost certainly fraudulent? Quite possibly. But Maduro's official vote total of 6,245,862 was more than 1.3 million less than the 7,587,576 he won in 2013. In 2013 that had represented 50.6%. In 2018 it represented 67.8%. Maduro equally may not have had to rig, because the opposition did not bother to vote. Would they have been allowed to win had they voted? Perhaps not. But they would have forced Maduro to engage in fraud to win, and it would have provided a much clearer way for the international community to help them, either by supervising the elections, or challenging their results. Guaido's claim to the Presidency is based on the premise that it is vacant which is based on the premise that the 2018 elections were illegitimate. But were they illegitimate because the opposition boycotted, even if the opposition boycotted because they were going to be illegitimate? Its unclear what that accomplished.
The current Guaido effort seems like a desperate throw to make up for these mistakes, a temper tantrum to simply declare that none of the decisions made, none of the consequences of those mistakes, not even the laws of physics, matter. The National Assembly, having lived in a world of fantasy for four years, embraced satire and farce at once. No greater representative of that exists than Guaido, an individual who has accomplished or done nothing. He has been a professional politician all his life. He never worked in the private sector, he never served in the army, nor, problematically, was he ever a Chavista. He has not only been a professional politician since his teenage years but a professional opposition one. He was not even President of the National Assembly when it was in formal existence, but was elected in December of 2018.
The mystery then is why the international community embraced him. That is a different question than why it embraced this bid to remove Maduro through declaring the Presidency vacant. Past mistakes left this option the only one. But this option did not require a 35 year old with no appeal to either the army, regime insiders, or even major stakeholders. The Assembly could have elected anyone its President, and therefore its candidate for "interim" President. It could have elected Raul Badual, Chavez's former comrade in arms and defense minister who helped foil the 2002 coup, only to fall out with the regime and become a leading opposition activist. Badual would have had credibility not just with the army, which he headed and served in for decades, but also with Chavistas and those worried about a rightward turn politically. It could have turned to Luisa Ortega, Venezuela's Former Attorney General, who turned on Maduro at great personal cost and in the face of substantial personal danger. Instead they picked a nobody, a nothing, a spoiled rich kid.
Guaido has had one asset, and that is the perception of foreign support. While a liability in some respects, given it makes him look like a puppet, what matters more in a country like Venezuela is money. Soldiers generally care less about ideology than being paid, and the thousands who have defected into Brazil and Columbia overwhelmingly have cited as their motivation a belief that Guaido would pay them if they did and send them back. That he appears to have failed at even that - his foreign sponsors are willing to cease Venezuela's gold in his name but not provide it to him to spend on paramilitaries - has not aided his cause, and it is also why almost all of his defections have been desertions by low level soldiers looking for pay and food, not high level officials. But they are now posing a liability. More than 1400 have fled to Columbia and unknown number to Brazil, and no one is paying them or doing anything. Forget the farcical scenes in Caracas or dreams of intervention. Thousands of armed starving men on the borders are exactly how wars start.
The great danger in Venezuela now is not simply the survival of the Maduro regime in Caracas. It is that the survival of the Maduro regime only in Caracas while the rest of the country descends into anarchy, and armed bands nominally aligned with the government or Guaido roam freely across the Colombian and Brazilian borders.
Maduro and his allies have charged the United States with being behind Guaido and running the opposition. The opposite is true. Allowing the opposition to run US policy, and that of other regional actors has allowed a group of politically bankrupt charlatans a credit card with which to spend American political capital in the region. The problem is not that the US is contemplated "all options" from military intervention, to a blockade of Cuba, to arming exiles. Any of those could work as part of a policy. The problem is that the US is contemplating them not in pursuit of an objective or policy, but on behalf of local actors who have shown that they themselves lack any plan, policy, or understanding of the actual situation in their own country. If the US wants its policy done right it is going to need to do it itself, and try and stitch together a far more credible alternative to Maduro. As the current nonsense wouldn't cut it on Veep, much less in the Game of Thrones of Venezuelan politics.