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What a Difference a Day Makes in Venezuela

Has the Maduro regime reached breaking point? It remains hard to say, but tomorrow is another - more hopeful - day for the restoration of democracy in the South American nation.
John Feeley was US Ambassador to Panama and is a Univision consultant.
Juan Guaidó, 35, declared himself interim president of Venezuela on Wednesday. Seen here holding up a copy of the Venezuelan constitution bearing the imagen de independence hero Simon Bolívar. Crédito: Carlos García Rawlins/Reuters

For observers who have watched Venezuela drift toward oblivion for almost two decades, yet never quite reach it, the events of the past two days have hyper-accelerated the country’s related political, economic, social and humanitarian disasters and brought the Maduro regime as close as it has ever come to a breaking point.

And for the first time, there is guarded optimism that democratic oblivion and a point of no return may be avoided. But that outcome is by no means guaranteed.

First a quick summary. Last year president Maduro was elected in a highly contested ballot that virtually all international and internal observers considered fraudulent. The opposition largely abstained, predicting the vote would be rigged. Fast forward to January 10, 2018; Nicolas Maduro was formally sworn in to the presidency which he had illegitimately won months earlier.

Under the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, should the presidency be vacated, the president be incapacitated or killed, or his assumption of the office based on an illegitimate process, the presidency passes to the head of the National Assembly. In December 2015, in a relatively free and fair election, opposition deputies from several parties won a majority and established a rotating presidency. This month they named an obscure legislator from the provinces to take the helm. That new leader is Juan Guaido, a man few inside and no one outside Venezuela knew a week ago, but who just could be the man to lead Venezuela back into the fold of hemispheric democracies and start Venezuela’s long recovery from the scourge of Chavismo.

On January 22, vice president Pence sent Guaido and the Venezuelan people a video message all but stating that if Guaido were to formally declare himself the constitutional interim president of Venezuela, the U.S. would recognize him. Days earlier, the OAS secretary general and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro had effectively done just that. On cue and in front of tens of thousands of joyful citizens in Caracas, Guaido was sworn in on January 23, the anniversary of another massive protest march that ended a military dictatorship in 1958.

This ceremony then prompted a dizzying series of events on a day Venezuelan historians will recall as E23 - Spanish shorthand for January 23 rd.

Highlights of the day’s developments included:

  • Eleven other western nations recognized interim president Guaido’s legitimacy and denounced the illegitimacy of Maduro’s government;
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee issued a bipartisan statement of support for Juan Guaido as the only legitimate leader in Venezuela and the National Assembly as the last remaining democratic institution in the country;
  • The Maduro government broke diplomatic relations with the United States, ordering the embassy shuttered, and its diplomatic personnel to depart the country within 72 hours;
  • Interim President Guaido issued a note to all diplomatic missions in Caracas underscoring that he alone was the legitimate president of the country and instructing ambassadors to disregard all communications and statements from the Maduro government;
  • U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo publicly responded to Maduro expulsion notice that, since the U.S. doesn’t recognize him as president, his orders regarding the U.S. diplomatic presence are effectively null and void.

What did we not see today?

Support for Maduro. Inside the country a pro-regime, Potemkin rally was held in Caracas, but it paled in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans all over the country who took to the streets calling on Maduro to step down. Internationally, only Cuba and Bolivia lined up on the wrong side of history yesterday, issuing explicit statements of support for Maduro. Mexico and Uruguay also put out a tepid and vapid statement that called on “all parties to commit to dialogue and peaceful resolution of conflict.” Yawn.

We also did not see much violence. That could change but the military appeared to use minimum force against the many protesters around Venezuela. Several units of the National Guard reportedly joined marchers in calling on Maduro to leave office and pledging support to the interim president. The most prominent human rights NGO, Foro Penal, said 109 protestors were detained and there were reports several protestors were shot. Still, in comparison to massive protests in 2014 and since, E23 was a relatively peaceful day.

So, what happens now? The best clue will come from the Venezuelan military’s posture. Several tweets were published late in the day claiming they remained loyal to the Maduro government. As of this writing, there is no clear evidence that the high command or junior ranks have broken with Maduro. However, will they follow orders if instructed to fire on protestors? Will they forcibly evict U.S. diplomats if they do not depart the country within Maduro’s 72-hour ultimatum? The short answer is we simply don’t know at this stage. However, the Venezuelan military’s decisions and actions over the next two days will be a major factor in Maduro’s calculation as to whether he can hold on to power.

Meanwhile for a country that has closed and censored traditional media and now runs on Twitter and Instagram, Venezuelans are jubilant on social media this evening. Many have stated they felt reinforced greatly by Secretary Pompeo’s defiant statement that the gringos are staying put at the embassy in Caracas.

And that, in this columnist’s opinion, is the correct and principled position for the United States to take. What a difference a day makes…and tomorrow is another day. Watch this space.