Venezuelan opposition leader and putative interim President Juan Guaidó hoped on Tuesday to spark an uprising, backed by a significant portion of Venezuela’s military, that would finally topple the repressive regime of socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro (pictured above). Flanked by defecting soldiers at a military base and his political mentor Leopoldo Lopez, who reportedly had been released earlier by his captors from house arrest, Mr. Guaidó posted a video announcing that the military’s leadership no longer backed the regime. However, he said, they would need civilians to demonstrate support of their efforts to get rid of the remaining Maduro loyalists in the military. The Venezuelan people responded with massive protests in the streets of Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, and near the military base. However, what started out as a day full of hope for real change appeared to end in failure.
So far at least, the results of Mr. Guaidó’s latest move are no more promising than his prior attempts to force Maduro from power. Other than the reported defection of the head of Venezuela’s intelligence agency, Maduro appears to be holding on to the crucial supporters he needs to remain in power. As before, much of the military, at least at the senior levels, have remained loyal to Maduro for now. His regime once again cracked down on the protesters with brutal force. Armored vehicles driven by Maduro loyalists even plowed into peaceful protesters. Live fire, along with rubber bullets and tear gas, were also reportedly used against the protesters.
“It took twelve hours, but we saw that the balance of power hadn’t shifted,” said Rocío San Miguel, a security analyst in Caracas. “In the end the scenario they got was that none of the important commanders joined the opposition.” Late on Tuesday evening, Maduro proclaimed on state television that Venezuela was “largely in peace” and that it would not succumb to “a neocolonial economic domination model and enslaving Venezuela.” He added, “We will continue to be victorious in every juncture that follows.”
According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Maduro and senior leaders in his government were singing a different tune Tuesday morning until Maduro’s principal ally Russia managed to steel his resolve. “He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning, as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay,” Secretary Pompeo said during a televised interview. “He was headed for Havana.” According to National Security Adviser John Bolton, a deal had been struck behind the scenes with senior officials in the Maduro regime, including Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, to abandon their support of Maduro, but they failed to follow through.
Russian and Venezuelan officials have denied these claims. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said, “Washington tried its best to demoralize the Venezuelan army and now used fakes as a part of information war.” Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s top diplomat, tweeted, “Making up fake news is a very sad way to accept that the coup you backed has failed … once again.” Defense Minister Lopez mocked what he called “a mediocre coup.”
For his part, Mr. Guaidó, who has not been arrested to date by the Maduro regime, remains defiant. “We need to keep up the pressure,” he told his followers. “We will be in the streets.” Thousands of protesters did take to the streets on Wednesday, but were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. The truth is that unless the military and security forces begin to defect en masse or there is military intervention from outside the country, Mr. Guaidó's words and the street protests that he inspires are likely to be in vain. The Maduro regime remains brazen despite the street protests, the escalating U.S. sanctions and the fact that more than 50 countries so far, including many in Latin America, have recognized Mr. Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
The regime’s confidence is bolstered by the military support it is receiving from Russia and Cuba. Russia has sent military specialists, aircraft and other equipment to the regime. Russian mercenaries are also reportedly in Venezuela to protect Maduro. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) raised the specter of Russian nuclear missiles present on Venezuelan soil, although he offered no evidence to back up his assertion. We know, however, that Russia did send two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela late last year.
Cuba has between 20,000 and 25,000 security forces in Venezuela, according to National Security Adviser John Bolton. President Trump tweeted a warning to Cuba on Tuesday that it would face “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” if its troops and militia “do not immediately CEASE military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela.”
President Trump has also engaged in some saber-rattling, declaring that all options are on the table.
Secretary of State Pompeo was very direct on Tuesday in saying that the United States was “prepared to consider military action if that’s what it takes to restore the democracy there in Venezuela.” However, saying and doing are two very different things.
Exactly what it would take to prompt a military response by the United States and to risk a direct confrontation with Russian forces remains unclear. The shooting or arrest of Mr. Guaidó? Mass killings of unarmed civilians? Or will it take something even more drastic, such as clear evidence that Russia is indeed using Venezuela as a base for its nuclear missiles, reminiscent of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis?
If President Trump does decide to use military force as a last resort, would it involve precision bombing, a U.S.-led ground invasion in concert with the military forces of neighboring Latin American countries such as Colombia and Brazil and Venezuelan military exiles, or a combination of both? Would it involve a naval blockade to cut off Venezuela’s ability to export oil to Cuba as well as trade with other friendly countries such as Russia, China and Iran? All such military alternatives are fraught with the risk of unintended consequences, including civilian deaths, destruction of key non-military infrastructure facilities, possible anarchy, and direct military confrontation with Russia. Colin Powell’s famous “you break it, you own it” maxim, used in connection with the Iraq War, would apply to Venezuela as well. As described by Foreign Affairs, “Whether the United States launched limited air strikes or a full ground invasion, it would almost certainly get sucked in to a long, difficult campaign to stabilize Venezuela after the initial fighting was over. Such an engagement would cost American lives and money and hurt the United States’ standing in Latin America…a war-weary American public is unlikely to stand for yet another extended military campaign.”
Perhaps the worst thing that President Trump can do is to repeat the Cuban Bay of Pigs disaster. Bay of Pigs Veterans Association President Johnny Lopez de la Cruz was part of the U.S. backed invasion of Cuba in 1961 that ended in failure after President John F. Kennedy decided to abandon the mission. “I’m pretty sure the U.S. has learned the lesson of the Bay of Pigs, raising the expectations and then at the last minute taking away the support,” Mr. López de la Cruz said. “That’s something I don’t think is going to happen this time.” Let’s hope he is right.
* * *