People power meets an entrenched Maduro regime in Venezuela

People power meets an entrenched Maduro regime in Venezuela
© FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan interim president Juan Guaidó took to the streets today, flanked by an armed military contingent. The message was clear: calling on Venezuelan citizens and the country’s armed forces to join in a final push to end Nicolás Maduro’s usurpation of power as part of Operation Freedom.

This comes in the lead-up to mass nationwide protests that have been called for on May 1. With Wednesday’s demonstrations expected to be the largest to date, the stage is set for this to be a potential turning point in the public uprising against Maduro.

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Over the past three months, we have seen the defection of approximately 1,500 military officers, including some high-profile defections of military attachés serving overseas. However, we have not yet seen mass defections among the armed forces or a shift in the military leadership’s support of Maduro.  

The symbolism of images of Guaidó in the streets with the support of some in the armed forces is important to sustaining public support and hope that the popular uprising will lead to a peaceful, sustainable democratic transition. It also offers a visible sign that the interim government is making headway in discussions with the military and high-level government officials to get some to break with Maduro. However, the success of the bold move is not a foregone conclusion.

The Maduro regime quickly came out publicly to affirm the situation was under control, calling Guaidó’s actions an attempted coup. As the day has unfolded, we saw clashes between anti-Maduro protestors and security forces, and reports of a vehicle attack against protestors.

But a careful look at developments over the past three months and the actions of Venezuela’s democratic forces, led by Guaidó, makes clear that this is not a coup. Guaidó’s mandate as interim president is based on the Constitution and is a direct result of Maduro’s effort to claim a second term based on the result of a fraudulent election in May 2018.

In fact, Venezuela’s democratic forces have undertaken a careful and deliberate effort to appeal to members of the armed forces to defend the Venezuelan people and the Constitution. They have done so through actions by the National Assembly, which approved an amnesty law that offers clear protections to those who take concrete steps to support a return of democracy in Venezuela, and who have not committed serious crimes against the Venezuelan people. They have also done so through a sustained messaging campaign, calling for the military to support the Venezuelan people’s call for a democratic transition, making both public and private appeals for them to support the popular movement.

That support can and has taken different forms to date. While high ranks of the military are holding especially firm in their support of Maduro, we are seeing some hopeful signs. More within the ranks of armed forces have defected. Others have made quiet but concrete acts of defiance, including by allowing Guaidó to return to Venezuela following his tour of Latin American countries in February. And every day, some within the armed forces and police chose not to repress and not to inflict violence on their fellow citizens.  

Likewise, longtime opposition leader Leopoldo López joining the mobilization marked one of the most visible signs of such defiance. The fact that Maduro’s intelligence forces allowed López to break house arrest to participate in today’s event alongside Guaidó represents a concrete demonstration of elements of the armed forces breaking in support of Venezuela’s democratic forces.

As demonstrations go on, and as the people of Venezuela prepare to take to the streets en masse to call for a return to democracy, Maduro and his allies will seek to clamp down on any signs of dissent among their ranks. The world is watching.

Despite the clear and sustained use of intimidation, repression and violence against the popular uprising, Maduro has demonstrated some restraint over the past three months — evidenced by Guaidó’s continued ability to move around the country and lead tens of thousands of people to the streets. Still, today’s public show of defiance is likely to elicit a hardened posture by Maduro and his close allies. What form that hardening will take remains to be seen.

The international community must remain vigilant and condemn all acts of repression and violence, as well as any signs of mass arrests — over the coming days, weeks and, likely, months. The road to the full consolidation of a democratic transition will be long and arduous. The events taking place this week represent a critical milestone in this march toward a democratic transition, but they are but one moment in the long march that is afoot.

Paula Garcia Tufró is the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and is former senior U.S. government official, most recently having served in the National Security Council.