Venezuela

THE FAILED COUP IN VENEZUELA AFTER ONE YEAR

January 23, 2020, marks one year since opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself “interim President” of Venezuela, Decembrist looked back at the year in the polarised country since then.

After years of disunity and failure, 2019 kicked off relatively strong for the Venezuelan opposition. After deciding not to participate in the presidential elections of 2018 and subsequently not to recognise the result (a resounding defeat), the opposition discovered a new sense of unity in early January. 

Despite the fact the National Assembly, the opposition’s only real source of power after its victory in the 2015 legislative elections, being essentially a lame duck institution since 2016 when the Chavista-controlled Supreme Court declared it “null and void,” the opposition has continued to put its faith in the parliamentary process.

The National Assembly, they claim, is the only legitimate source of power in the country.

Putting to the side years of internal squabbling, on January 5 the opposition elected the 35-year-old Juan Guaidó as the new President of the National Assembly. At the time of his election, Guaidó was a little-known deputy of the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, and protege of the party’s founder, Leopoldo Lopez. 

Five days after Guaidó’s election to National Assembly President on January 10, Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for his second term, lasting until 2025. At this moment, the political divide in Latin America was exposed at its most unharmonious point.

The region’s right wing states, led by Colombia and Brazil and supported by the United States, refused to recognise Maduro as president. The Organisation of American States (OAS), a fierce institution of the interventionist regional right and long viewed as the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic tool in the region, also passed a resolution not recognising Maduro. 

Alternatively, left wing states of the region such as Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua, as well as China, Russia and Turkey, all attended the inauguration, which had to be moved from its traditional place of the National Assembly to the Supreme Court. It was on this day that the legal preparations for a coup were put in motion.

Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second term in January 2019

Over the next two weeks, Guaidó flirted with agitation of the armed forces. The National Assembly passed a law offering immunity to any members of the military who “collaborate in the restitution of democracy.”

It seemed his call was heard within at least a section of the armed forces when a small group of soldiers from the National Guard rebelled against the government declaring support for the National Assembly. However, a few hours later when they realised their attempt to spark an anti-government military revolt lacked broad support, the soldiers gave in and were arrested. 

The regime was quick to denounce them as “traitors” who were paid and “motivated by dark interests of the extreme right.” However, the opposition seized on it as a clear example that the discontent within the military necessary to overthrow the regime does indeed exist, it just needed to be unleashed.

With support from the Western powers, Guaidó and the opposition intensified their calls for mass street mobilisation to overthrow the regime whilst directly pleading with the armed forces to abandon the government. On January 23, exactly 61 years after the fall of the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, the opposition committed entirely to Guaidó as their man to lead the coup. 

In the upper class east of Caracas, in front of thousands of supporters, citing Article 233 of the Constitution, Guaidó officially declared himself interim President of Venezuela. Article 233 states, “When the president-elect is absolutely absent before taking office, a new election shall take place…And while the president is elected and takes office, the interim president shall be the president of the National Assembly.” 

In making his self-declaration, he repeated the opposition’s mantra: “end the usurpation, transitional government, and free elections.” The gravity of the situation was intensified by the decisions of the U.S. and dozens of other countries around the world to immediately recognise Guaidó as the country’s legitimate president.

In response, Maduro cut off diplomatic relations with the U.S. and gave all diplomatic staff 72 hours to leave the country.

From this day, Guaidó had the full force of the Western regime behind him. Instantly, the mainstream media put themselves to work legitimising the coup attempt and painting Guaidó as the poster boy of Venezuelan democracy. The Wall Street Journal called him “a new democratic leader,” whilst Bloomberg said he seeks “the restoration of democracy.” 

The next week, the Trump Administration had imposed new sanctions on Venezuela, essentially establishing a “de facto oil embargo” on the country. At the same press conference announcing the new sanctions, then National Security Advisor John Bolton had a picture taken of his notepad which read “5000 troops to Colombia.”

However, despite Guaidó’s lightning speed rise to international fame, the situation on the ground was never as one-sided as the Western media presented it. For all the support that the opposition had in the streets across the entire country, Chavismo was determined to match it by mobilising in huge numbers.

Chavista supporters marched under the banner of the ruling “United Socialist Party of Venezuela” (PSUV) on both the Wednesday that Guaidó made his declaration and on the following Friday, coming out in the tens of thousands to show their support for Maduro and take a defiant stance against any form of foreign intervention.

Within 24 hours of Guaidó’s declaration, clashes had begun in Caracas and other cities with at least 4 reported deaths.

Protesters carry a Venezuelan flag. Credit: LA Times

THE WEAPONISATION OF INTERNATIONAL AID

As the coup attempt moved deeper into February and surpassed one month, it became clear that any hope of sparking an immediate popular uprising against the government had failed. Consequently, the opposition and the U.S. turned towards diplomatic tactics. 

On the international stage, the U.S. intentionally stymied efforts by the European Union, Mexico and Uruguay to negotiate a settlement between the government and opposition.

In a purposefully controversial move, the State Department appointed a convicted criminal and key architect of Ronald Reagan’s Contra War in Nicaragua during the 1980s, Elliot Abrams, as its special envoy to Venezuela. 

Finally, in a sign of even greater U.S. desperation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the claim that active Hezbollah cells were present in Venezuela.

The political struggle reached a flashpoint on February 23 that brought in all elements of the Western machine over an attempt by the opposition to bring in a $20 million USAID package.

The aid was sitting in the Colombian town of Cúcuta on the border with Venezuela waiting to cross a closed bridge connecting the two countries. Guaidó supporters on the Colombian side of the border cleared a path for four aid trucks to enter which was resisted by Venezuelan security forces.

A stray molotov cocktail thrown by an opposition supporter caused one of the trucks to catch fire, which then spread to at least one other truck. Footage showing the trucks burning on the bridge was viewed in almost real time on social media.

Mere minutes after one journalist tweeted a video from the bridge specifically claiming Venezuelan forces were responsible for intentionally burning the trucks, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio backed up this unsubstantiated claim by tweeting it to millions of his followers. Other leading U.S. coup figures including both Bolton and Pompeo were quick to follow suit. 

That same evening, the mainstream media picked up on the story, legitimising this version of events. Ironically, it was not until an investigation on March 10 by The New York Times revealing what actually happened that any mainstream media admitted to the true version of events.

However, by then it was too late, the fabricated story had already been used as justification to increase pressure on Venezuela.

As a result, Maduro cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia, calling the country’s president “the devil himself.” That same Saturday afternoon saw one of the biggest pro-government rallies in Caracas since the coup attempt.

The day before the showdown over the aid, billionaire Richard Branson hosted a huge anti-government concert in Cúcuta attended by the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay as well as the Secretary General of the OAS.

“Venezuela Aid Live” as it was called, saw some of the region’s biggest musical names perform for free in order to put pressure on the Venezuelan government to allow the aid to enter. 

Guaidó himself even defied a travel ban on leaving the country to make an appearance before a raucous crowd. His plan was to victoriously ride into Venezuela with the aid the day after the concert. However, being unable to simply stroll back into Venezuela, he was forced to continually delay his entry. 

Consequently, he turned the embarrassing faux pas into a “diplomatic trip” as he spent the next week and a half travelling around South America on the Colombian and Brazilian presidential planes meeting with the presidents of Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. 

When he returned to Venezuela, free from any government prosecution, he admitted the aid initiative was “unsuccessful,” blaming the Venezuelan military for its failure.

Ultimately, the whole process was an embarrassing failure for Guaidó and the opposition, with even the New York Times admitting “the (Venezuelan) Government’s rule appears to be more durable than Mr. Guaidó had painted it.”

STALEMATE

March was a particularly challenging month for both the opposition and the government, but above all for the Venezuelan people. Within the opposition, both domestically and internationally, concern began to grow that the coup attempt was losing momentum. Fractures appeared in the international coalition to oust Maduro as U.S. leaders like Rubio and Bolton intensified their overtures to military intervention, but regional leaders such as Brazil and Colombia firmly rejected such a move. 

Guaidó himself was even rebuked by the reactionary and interventionist group of regional powers, the Lima Group, when he refused to rule out supporting a U.S. military invasion of his own country. 

The Government for its part, faced extreme pressure when on March 7 a nation-wide blackout began. Lasting for days and affecting around 70 percent of the country, senior officials instantly made strong allegations that the blackout was a result of a U.S. cyberattack on the Simón Bolívar Hydroelectric Plant, the country’s main electricity generator. 

After three days of the blackout, NGO “Doctors For Health” reported at least 21 deaths, mainly due to the inability of hospitals to function. The response of Guaidó to the blackouts was highly suspicious when he tweeted “the electricity will return when the usurpation ends.” He also reiterated his own overtures to supporting a U.S. military intervention when he repeated Trump’s line “all options are on the table.” 

Even more suspicious was the fact that Marco Rubio tweeted about the blackouts a matter of minutes after they had begun, even before some local media was able to report on them. 

Senator Marco Rubio is one of the leaders of U.S. interventionism in Latin America.

The effects of the blackout were far reaching on Venezuelan society. For days, work and school activities were suspended, public transport was shut down, water shortages in major cities caused huge lines at make-shift water distribution points ran by the Government, supermarkets and shopping malls were looted, and protests and riots broke out.

Some parts of the country were still suffering these consequences more than a week after the blackout began.

Economically, as the de facto oil embargo began to bite on Venezuela’s ability to bring in foreign reserves, Maduro turned to the country’s vast gold reserves (the second largest in the world) to try to make up for the oil losses.

In a tit-for-tat response, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions on the state-owned Venezuelan General Mining Company, known as Minerven

Washington’s European allies supported the attempt to starve Venezuela of any source of hard currency with the Bank of England blocking the repatriation of $1.2 billion of Venezuelan gold. 

Once Venezuela’s natural resources had been sanctioned, attention was turned to its financial system. 

In the same week as the gold sanctions and in response to the Government’s arrest of Guaidó’s Chief of Staff for allegedly leading a terrorist cell, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned three major public banks in Venezuela – two of which were key banks the Government uses to pay public pensions and benefits. 

U.N. Human Rights expert Idriss Jazairy expressed his “concern that these sanctions are aimed at changing the government of Venezuela.” He went on to say that “economic sanctions are effectively compounding the grave crisis affecting the Venezuelan economy.”

THE COUP GOES INTERNATIONAL

In April, the fight over Venezuela’s sovereignty moved abroad – all the way to Washington – when Guaidó’s appointed “ambassador” to the U.S. attempted to take over Venezuela’s U.S. embassy in Washington.

On April 10, a group of activists and journalists barricaded themselves inside the Venezuela Embassy in Washington D.C., at the invitation of Venezuelan authorities, to stop it being taken over by Guaidó’s representative, Carlos Vecchio.

Known as the “Embassy Protection Collective,” the group resisted extreme pressure from the Police and Secret Service who even tried cutting electricity to the building to force them out.

In a tone blatantly dismissive of the Vienna Diplomatic Conventions, Vecchio stated in a live tweet, “We have decided to give them a bit of the experience of living in Venezuela under the failed socialism of Maduro. As of this moment, they will not have electric power. Next step, your exit.”

The violations of international law continued on May 16 when the Secret Service arrested the remaining members of the collective inside the building.

Venezuela’s U.S. Embassy during the takeover by Guaidó’s designate.

The coup became even more international when one of Venezuela’s key allies, Russia, sent two air force planes to the country along with an attachment of 100 servicemen including the Chief of Staff of Russian ground forces.

In response, Rubio tweeted that the move “poses a direct threat to our national security.” Trump decided to be more direct, simply stating, “Russia has to get out.” 

Ultimately, March finished in much the same way it began. Another country-wide blackout on the 22nd that the government blamed on a U.S. cyber attack resulted in confrontations between protesters and security forces, and the government’s decision to impose electricity rationing.

As the stalemate went on, it became clear Washington never imagined the government would survive this long. 

Mike Pence made this point clear when he led a second failed attempt at the UN Security Council to have the body officially recognise Guaidó as “interim President.” Referring to Latin America, Pence warned Russia and China to stay out of “our neighbourhood.” 

The diplomatic pressure continued as the IMF cut off funding to Venezuela, Canada imposed sanctions on 43 “high-ranking officials,” and Pompeo visited Cúcuta with Colombian President Iván Duque, telling reporters to “watch the political and diplomatic noose tighten around Maduro’s neck.” 

However, Maduro also secured some, at least symbolic, victories. The Lima Group rejected “any threat or course of action leading to a military intervention.”

This showed the Trump Administration was completely at odds with the regional powers. Also, it showed how, to some extent, the regional powers were even at odds with Guaidó, as he continued to refuse ruling out support for a U.S. invasion of his own country. 

As the government continued to rally its supporters around the defense of the country from imperialism, huge pro-government celebrations were held across the country as Venezuela completed its two-year withdrawal process from the OAS.

Maduro quoted Fidel Castro in calling the OAS the “U.S. Ministry of Colonies.” Venezuela’s Foreign Minister (and son-in-law of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez), Jorge Arreaza, echoed the anti-imperialist sentiment at a rally telling supporters that Venezuela “is breaking free of the chains of the racist Monroe Doctrine.”

THE COUP DURING THE COUP

On April 30, Guaidó attempted his boldest move yet calling it the “final phase” of “Operation Freedom” – a military uprising. The attempt began at dawn and had failed a mere matter of hours later, with four people dying in what was a chaotic day of events.

The mainstream media over the following days pieced together the background to the uprising through a number of “unidentified sources” as well as senior U.S. officials. The following version of events is what has already become the Western media’s “official” version:

For weeks before the failed uprising, two sets of clandestine talks were held. One set of talks was between the Government’s head of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), Major General Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, Miami-based Venezuelan businessman Cesar Omaña and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno. 

The other was between the aforementioned Leopoldo López, the founder of Guaidó’s Voluntad Popular party under house arrest at the time, and various members of Venezuela’s armed forces, as well as senior members of the Maduro Government. 

In the first set of talks, according to the Washington Post who claimed to speak to at least three people familiar with them, Maduro’s top spy, Figuera, attempted to convince Moreno to shift the Supreme Court’s allegiance to Guaidó and reinstate the National Assembly as the country’s legitimate legislative branch.

Figuera argued a Supreme Court ruling recognising Guaidó as the legitimate president was necessary to “provide a vital lever to sway the military to their (the opposition’s) cause.” 

Such a ruling was “essential, because it gave the military as an institution a reason to step forward in an honourable way…It made it so their actions were legal, and would not be considered a coup,” an unidentified source is quoted as saying in the same Washington Post article. 

Allegedly, Moreno sympathised with the cause of the opposition but expressed doubt about Guaidó as the best man for the job, proposing himself as an alternative. When Figuera and Omaña convinced Moreno that it had to be Guaidó, he reportedly came around to making a ruling that would recognise Guaidó as interim President.

However, just days before the attempt, he demanded that the opposition demonstrate it had the required loyalty within the military to achieve the overthrow of Maduro before the Supreme Court made the ruling.

In the other set of talks, Leopoldo López had allegedly spent weeks in his home under house arrest meeting clandestinely with various members of the armed forces, as well as key Maduro loyalists, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López.

An agreement was reportedly reached in which key government officials such as Padrino and Moreno would help force out Maduro by abandoning him, and in return they would maintain their positions in a transitional government headed by Guaidó.

The date for the uprising was set on May 1, Labour Day.

Supposedly, that was the plan. The actual events of the day led senior U.S. officials to admit they had been caught off guard and unprepared for what actually happened. Mainly because the agreed uprising occurred a day earlier than planned, on April 30.

There are a number of reasons that have been presented for why Guaidó chose to bring it forward a day. 

Figuera, believed that Maduro was about to imminently fire him, and without him as head of SEBIN, the whole attempt would be undermined. Additionally, reports began to surface that Leopoldo López was about to be moved out of house arrest and into prison, and that Guaidó was to be arrested any day.

Consequently, in the early hours of April 30, the attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government began.

ALL TO LA CARLOTA!

In the early hours of the morning on April 30 a video was posted on social media. In the video, Guaidó is standing on the Altamira Overpass of the Francisco Fajardo highway, in front of a contingent of heavily armed military personnel, with a not-so-inconspicuous Leopoldo López in the background. Speaking directly to the camera, Guaidó says, “People of Caracas, all to La Carlota!” 

La Carlota is an air force base in Caracas on the highway from which Guaidó and López made their call. Forces of the military and of SEBIN loyal to them, identified by a blue armband, blocked the highway on the overpass. At around 7:00am reports came out that tear gas had been fired at this group of insurrectionary soldiers on the overpass from inside the airbase. 

By 9:00am there were reports of social media being blocked and internet restrictions in place.

As the news of the uprising spread internationally, foreign governments were quick to weigh in. Then Bolivian President Evo Morales called on foreign governments to “condemn the coup in Venezuela,” whilst U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sent a message on Twitter to “all the freedom-loving people of Venezuela who are taking to the streets today” that “America will stand with you until freedom and democracy are restored.”

At this point, it became a battle over mobilisation

The Government’s first response came by the President of the Constituent Assembly and second-top Chavista, Diosdado Cabello, calling on government supporters to flock to the presidential palace in Caracas. Maduro himself called for “maximum popular mobilisation.”

Around 11:00am, both Maduro at the Presidential Palace and Guaidó and López at La Carlota had mobilised thousands of supporters to their respective causes. However, the two scenes showed clearly who commanded the loyalty of the military. 

Guaidó and López were still on the overpass from where they originally made their call to insurrection with no more than the few dozen members of the military and SEBIN. At the same time, armoured vehicles loyal to the government began to arrive at the overpass to break up the protesters that had come out in support of the insurrection.

The footage that was captured on the Altamira Overpass that day became the defining images of the narrative in the Western media. The armoured vehicles sent by the Government violently and ruthlessly attacked the protesters, even running some of them over.

As the confrontations on the bridge went on, Guaidó and López led a march to the nearby Plaza Altamira where the two of them stood on top of a van and spoke to the crowd.

Through a megaphone, Guaidó told his supporters, “Operation Freedom has begun. We are going to stop here asking and demanding that the military join.”

After the march finished, Guaidó and López went multiple hours without making any public statements with their whereabouts unknown.

It was obvious from the beginning they lacked the support amongst the armed forces and people to spark the type of uprising they wanted and this period of the day was most likely them re-assessing their options. 

Around 4:00pm, the Chilean Foreign Minister tweeted that López was with his family in that country’s Caracas Embassy, although he was later to move to the Spanish Embassy.

During the day, mobilisations is various parts of Caracas were reported by both government supporters and opposition supporters, with road blocks and confrontations. When Guaidó finally reappeared, it was in the same way he appeared to start the day, on social media.

In a video, Guaidó echoed Mike Pompeo’s unfounded claim that Maduro “had a plane on the runway, he was ready to leave this morning…but the Russians convinced him to stay,” saying “the information is correct, the Usurper had everything ready to leave.”

Guaidó tried hard to find some positive message, telling his followers, “Today is a historic day…the protests generated results,” saying his uprising attempt was not a coup but a “pacific rebellion.” In the same video, he called his supporters out to the streets the following day for Labour Day.

Ultimately, it was another failed attempt by Guaidó to prove to the Venezuelan people and his U.S. bosses that he has the support of the armed forces necessary to overthrow the government.

The Western propaganda machine in the aftermath of the day’s events worked overtime to legitimise the actions and minimise Guaidó’s and the opposition’s reputational damage.

Ironically, just a few weeks before the failed uprising, John Bolton delivered a speech commemorating the 61st anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, the failed U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow the Cuban Revolution. Days after Guaidó’s failed uprising, the Washington Post called it “Venezuela’s Bay of Pigs.”

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

May 1, 2019, in Venezuela was not like any other Labour Day. Hundreds of thousands came out across Caracas and the country in both anti-government and pro-government mobilisations. For the Chavistas, it was a day of victory. 

The pro-government march that ended up at the Presidential Palace with an address from Maduro was one of the biggest Chavista marches in recent years. Maduro was able to claim from the “People’s Balcony” of the palace that “the people of Venezuela stand victorious again.” 

For the opposition, it was yet another day of facing the music of failure and trying to find a way to keep their supporters enthusiastic. Despite having attempted to overthrow the government a mere 24 hours earlier, Guaidó was free to address crowds in the up-scale eastern Caracas suburb of El Marques. 

With the opposition downtrodden after the defeat of its uprising a day earlier, senior U.S. officials tried to keep up the pressure on the Government from Washington. Mike Pompeo told Fox News, “Military action is possible. If that’s what’s required, that’s what the United States will do.”

A week and a half after the failed coup attempt came the Government’s response. The National Constituent Assembly, the rival legislative body controlled by the Government, stripped seven opposition National Assembly members of their parliamentary immunity on the orders of the Supreme Court. Many of them had already taken refuge in various foreign embassies. 

The government then moved on to the military, expelling 55 members of the armed forces. Although, many had followed the lead of the opposition figures and taken refuge in foreign embassies, 15 in the Brazilian Embassy.

In a clear sign of Guaidó’s growing frustrations, he resorted to openly embracing the U.S. military as his saviour by instructing his “ambassador” to the U.S. to establish “a direct relationship” with the U.S. Southern Command.

He also finally admitted that he supports a U.S. military intervention, telling Italian newspaper La Stampa, “If the North Americans proposed a military intervention, I would probably accept it.”

As Washington tried to provoke the Venezuelan government even further when a U.S. Coast Guard vessel came within 24 kilometres of the country’s coastline on May 9, Guaidó agreed to reopen negotiations between the government and opposition in Norway, the first set of talks in over a year. However, this was quick to cause cracks within the opposition alliance against Maduro.

The U.S. found a soft way to express their displeasure with the decision by stating, “The only thing to negotiate with Nicolás Maduro is the conditions of his departure.”

More importantly however, the decision by Guaidó revealed that the extreme hardline opposition, that is even further to the right of Guaidó, was becoming tired of his inability to oust Maduro. 

Maria Corina Machado, leader of the far right Vente Venezuela, penned an open letter to Colombian President Iván Duque saying the negotiations could cause the opposition to “lose its political momentum.”

Hardline opposition leader, Maria Corina Machado, talks to Bolivia’s coup-leading “interim President” Jeanine Áñez.

This hardline sector of the opposition has also pushed for Venezuela to re-enter the “Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance” (TIAR), a hemispheric defence agreement that some argue could be used as “a possible legal justification for U.S. military action.” 

As the calendar rolled into the end of May, the oil embargo began to bite even harder as the three month period the U.S. Treasury granted to various countries and companies to stop buying Venezuelan crude came to an end.

It resulted in a 17 percent drop in oil exports for the month. Additionally, May saw the dollar value of Venezuelan exports hit a historic low of $1.1 billion, a 52 percent drop from January when the oil embargo began.

As the year progressed into June, the enthusiasm that Guaidó had begun with in January was slowly dissipating, an opposition-aligned poll found that only 36 percent of Venezuelans recognised him as president, down from 49 percent in February.

The young leader tried to rally support and keep people’s faith in him alive on June 3 when he made his most definitive statement yet, declaring that “this didn’t start in 2019, but I’ll tell you something, it will end in 2019.”

Even in the halls of power in Washington, frustration was starting to show. An audio tape leaked to the Washington Post of Mike Pompeo speaking at a private meeting where he described the task of uniting the opposition as “devilishly hard,” only exposed further the splits that were beginning to grow in the opposition.

Pompeo went on to reveal the true character of the opposition leaders when he said, “The moment Maduro leaves, everybody’s going to raise their hands and (say), ‘Take me, I’m the next president of Venezuela.’ It would be forty-plus people who believe they’re the rightful heir to Maduro.”

The shine that Guaidó once enjoyed continued to grow dimmer when a report by Panam Post revealed that the two members of Guaidó’s party who he personally appointed to oversee the aid operations in Colombia had embezzled and misappropriated over $100,000 donated to the opposition for aid and support to members of the military who had abandoned the regime.

Adding even further to Guaidó’s image of being a U.S. puppet, a Los Angeles Times report on July 16 revealed that the Trump Administration had decided to redirect over $40 million earmarked for Central American development to Guaidó’s team, allegedly to pay for “their salaries, airfares, ‘good governance’ training, propaganda, technical assistance for holding elections and other ‘democracy-building’ projects.”  

MORE OF THE SAME

By August, more than six months had passed of intense political manoeuvring by the opposition and government that had resulted in no serious political change in the country, except for increased repression against the people and further deterioration of the economic situation.

As a result, Trump decided to unleash further economic warfare amounting to the “first-ever expanded sanctions against a western hemisphere government in over 30 years, similar to those faced by Cuba.” 

By executive order, Washington imposed an “economic embargo” on Venezuela stating the country’s U.S. assets “are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in.”

The move also helped to protect Venezuela’s state-owned U.S. subsidiary, CITGO, a crucial company in the country’s oil operations, from being seized by a number of foreign companies as collateral for unpaid debts.

In a characteristically apathetic statement, Guaidó praised the sanctions, seeming not to be concerned about the human costs, “Today, there is no possibility of losing CITGO.”

Caracas responded by withdrawing from the dialogue with the opposition and calling the U.S. actions “economic and political terrorism.” Even the E.U. dissented from its usual subordinate role to Washington by stating, “We oppose the extraterritorial application of unilateral measures.”

As the stalemate continued into September, the opposition faced a number of embarrassing moments of disunity. The government was able to split the divided opposition by creating a new dialogue with the more moderate faction of the opposition and the Catholic Church. 

This placed Guaidó in a difficult position, but he ultimately decided to stay in the good books of the hardline faction, who at the time also had cause to celebrate as the OAS voted to approve the convening of a consultation body of the TIAR Treaty, after the National Assembly approved Venezuela’s re-entry into it.

The Colombian proposed resolution stated that Venezuela poses “a clear threat to peace and security in the region.” The legal application of the TIAR Treaty however remains ambiguous as the National Assembly was the institution that passed Venezuela’s re-entry into it, and the Supreme Court nullified the decision.

Regardless, it is one extra legal instrument that the opposition, both inside and outside of the country, can hold up as justification for a military intervention of Venezuela.

Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry released a statement in response, “It is painful to see how countries which were invaded by U.S. troops and whose people were massacred in the application of the TIAR today back a similar crime against a fellow country.”

At the U.N. General Assembly, Colombian President Iván Duque doubled down on the TIAR proposal and upped the rhetoric in front of a local Colombian audience when he stated, “For me, Nicolás Maduro is the Slobodan Milosevic of Latin America. What he has done against his people is a crime against humanity; but also for what he has done with the terrorist groups, by protecting them in his territory. This is only comparable to what the Taliban did with Al Qaeda.”

Colombian President Iván Duque (right) has been one of the region’s strongest supporters of Guaidó.

THE CRACKS DEEPEN

Tensions within the opposition seemed to reach a high point in early December over a report by a pro-opposition news site that alleged illegal links between nine National Assembly members and a Colombian businessmen.

Allegedly, the nine deputies were involved in a plot to help shield Carlos Lizcano, a Colombian whose business is involved in the CLAP food distribution program in Venezuela, from U.S. and Colombian sanctions in exchange for kickbacks. Upon the release of the report, Guaidó concurred that “corruption” had in fact taken place when he tweeted, “I will not allow corruption to endanger all we have sacrificed.”

Jose Brito, a National Assembly member of the Justicia Primero (First Justice) party who was one of the accused, exposed big cracks in the opposition when he fired back, saying Guaidó “does not have moral, ethical or judicial capabilities, because he’s corrupt.” Brito went on, “There is a rebellion inside the National Assembly against Guaido, because he’s corrupt.”

2020

If January 2019 started off full of hope and enthusiasm for the opposition and its supporters that the man who was going to overthrow the regime had arrived, by January 2020 that statement could not have been further from the truth. On January 5, 2020, Guaidó’s one-year term as National Assembly President was due to expire, at which point the body would elect a new president.

For all the embarrassments and failures that Guaidó and the opposition suffered in 2019, arguably none were bigger than this one, just five days into the new year.

Guaidó, on the morning of January 5, arrived at the National Assembly, just like other members, to meet and take a vote on the next president. The National Guard was there for security purposes and to ensure that only legally-allowed members and staff could enter. 

When Guaidó arrived, he was allowed to enter. However, he refused to do so until the National Guard also allowed a number of other deputies to enter who were legally banned due to various indictments and investigations and who were allies of Guaidó.

Many opposition members were allowed to enter and indeed did so, including staunch Maduro critics as well as the out-going first and second vice presidents of the body.

Knowing that he probably did not have the votes for re-election and with the National Guard not backing down, Guaidó searched for an alternative entrance.

In what became the defining images of the day’s events, Guaidó attempted to climb a fence of the building and force his way in. However, he never even made it over the fence and when it became clear who would not get in, eventually gave up.

Guaidó tries to scale a fence to enter the National Assembly. Credit: Reuters

Faced with the possibility of being outmanoeuvred not by Maduro but by members of the opposition dissatisfied with him, Guaidó convened an ad-hoc legislative session in the headquarters of the opposition-supporting newspaper, El Nacional, where a disputed number of deputies (reportedly 100) re-elected him as the assembly’s president.

The fact that Guaidó’s vote took place in a newspaper’s offices was virtually absent from the mainstream media. The Washington Post simply stated, “In a 100-to-0 tally – enough to put him over the top in a full session of the 167-seat chamber – those present reelected Guaidó as head of the legislature.”

“Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting” (FAIR) was quick to point out the oxymoronic nature of the Western press, who legitimised a vote in an opposition newspaper office as “official,” when at the same time claim it is a country that lacks freedom of the press.

However, the legitimacy of Guaidó’s makeshift re-election was instantly challenged by events inside the actual National Assembly. The other group of deputies that decided to actually enter the building, which consisted of a reported 81 of 150 members including pro-government groups, elected Luis Parra to the assembly’s presidency who was then recognised by Maduro. 

Parra was one of the opposition members accused of corruption in the CLAP scandal and was subsequently expelled from his party, Primero Justicia.

The chaotic day left the country with yet another power struggle, this time not between institutions, but within one. The actual legality and legitimacy of the day continues to remain unclear. The opposition declared that Parra’s election lacked the necessary quorum, and heavily criticised Maduro for ordering the National Guard to block elected members from entering. However, the testimony of the pro-Guaidó, opposition deputy, Williams Davila, was very telling. 

Davila, who did enter the National Assembly, told local media, “Only Calzadilla and the deputy from (the state of) Amazonas were not allowed to enter, the rest of us all entered.” Of course, this line was never repeated by the mainstream media. For their part, Western governments were quick to cry foul of the “stunt” that Maduro pulled, claiming that Parra was working for the government.

In terms of the international response, there was virtually no change. All countries that previously recognised Guaidó as “interim President” continued to do so. However, it was a testing moment for some of Maduro’s few remaining Latin American allies.

Argentina, under the new government of Alberto Fernández distanced itself from Maduro, while the Mexican government released a statement recognising that “Maduro in Venezuela used the Bolivarian National Guard to impede Juan Guaidó’s and opposition deputies’ access to the National Assembly. In a session without quorum, and without opposition legislators, the Chavista deputies voted to name Luis Parra as president of the legislative body.”

The fight over the National Assembly and amongst now-openly rivalling factions of the opposition continued. On January 7 it was due to hold its first session of the year, and it seemed to begin in much the same way that it did two days earlier.

Once again, upon arrival at the National Assembly Guaidó was met by the National Guard. However, this time he was determined to get in. Videos uploaded to social media showed Guaidó and other opposition deputies pushing their way through the main entrance to take their places in the chamber. 

In a legislative chamber that appeared to have more journalists than actual elected members, Guaidó strangely chose to say, “This is a show of what can happen when we are united.”

Ultimately, 2019 was a tough year for the two competing sides in Venezuela, but above all else, for the Venezuelan people. As two rival seats of power, both backed and maintained by foreign governments, fought over control of the country’s institutions and armed forces, it was the people who suffered.

Increased U.S. sanctions caused extreme economic hardships on the people and led Maduro to cede even more of the country’s resources and sovereignty to China and Russia in order to keep his government afloat.

It remained impossible for the Western media to report objectively on the country, meaning that independent sources of media have become even more important in the information war that is currently being waged against Venezuela. 

The reality is that it looks as if the current stalemate will go on. No group has sufficient support within the country to put an end to the crisis, and no group seems willing to make any concessions in order to do so anyway. In such a deeply polarised society, the only certainty is that the people will continue to suffer.

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