In Venezuela, Waiting for Guaidó

Columbia's Christopher Sabatini examines the Venezuela crisis and President Donald Trump's support for Juan Guaidó. 

Christopher Sabatini
May 07, 2019

On the morning of April 30, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who had been recognized by more than 50 countries as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, appeared in a video calling for his supporters to take to the streets and for military officers to turn against the “usurper,” President Nicolas Maduro. 

Within 12 hours, the uprising had fizzled. The military didn’t defect, and members of Maduro’s cabinet—including the defense minister Vladimir Padrino López—publicly declared their support for Maduro. The embattled president eventually reappeared and called the attempt to unseat him defeated. 

There are still no clear answers as to how things unraveled so quickly. One theory, floated by a Wall Street Journal report, is that claims by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, that the opposition had been promised the support of high level government offices was a ruse by Cuban agents working with the government to flush out dissenters. But even if  this were true, the opposition and the Trump administration’s hope that the military high brass would support a transition was always flawed.  

Over the two decades that the Chavista government has been in power, first under Hugo Chávez (1999 to 2013) and now under Maduro (2013 to present), the military has become politicized and corrupted. There are reportedly more than 1,000 generals in Venezuela, and much of the high command is involved in money laundering and narcotics trafficking, arbitraging the country’s complicated exchange rate for profit, and selling food on the black market. 

These military officers are tied to Maduro as partners in crime. The opposition and the Trump administration’s strategy of flipping the military in favor of Guaidó was either hopelessly naive or ill-informed. 

Nevertheless, while Guaidó’s popular mobilization failed to produce regime change, there are indications that Maduro’s government is increasingly fragile. Sadly though, the America's full-throated embrace of squeezing the Maduro regime economically through sanctions and tightening the U.S. embargo on Cuba to force regime change in both countries will likely remain unchanged, despite its obvious failures in both cases.

SIPA Lecturer Christopher Sabatini is executive director and editor of Global Americans, a news and research non-profit established to broaden analysis and discussion of the Americas within a global context. He has testified multiple times before the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, and is a regular contributor to Foreign Affairs and Sabatini recently joined PBS NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan to discuss Russia's role and the U.S. government response in Venezuela's struggle over power transition. 

This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.