Hope for a Democratic Venezuela

Photo: Eva Marie Uzcategui (Getty Images)

Juan Guaidó is really shaking things up in Venezuela. Twenty years after the Bolivarian revolution was begun under Hugo Chávez, Guaidó, the 35-year-old opposition politician, has finally forced the government of Nicolás Maduro to play defense.

Over 50 countries recognize Guaidó, who has served since January as head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader. Meanwhile, the pressure to restore democracy in Venezuela — and to do it quickly — is mounting, both domestically and internationally.

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“How should I address you?” I asked Guaidó during a recent interview, via Skype. I was in Miami; he was somewhere in Venezuela.

The question was an important one. Maduro’s government in Caracas describes Guaidó as a self-proclaimed president. But Guaidó prefers another title, “Acting President of Venezuela by Mandate of the Constitution,” and offers his own explanation — namely, that he has invoked Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, which prescribes that “when the president becomes permanently unavailable ... the president of the National Assembly shall take charge of the presidency of the Republic.”

In Guaidó’s view, the office of the president became vacant following Venezuela’s monumentally fraudulent election in May 2018, and despite Maduro’s decision to cling to power illegally. It was then, after the inauguration of the dictator for a second term in January, that Guaidó was sworn in as interim president, taking Venezuela’s Chavistas by surprise.

Huge expectations are building up around Guaidó. After he was declared president, many Venezuelans hoped Maduro would be ousted quickly. That didn’t happen. And when the regime turned away humanitarian aid sent from abroad, preventing it from crossing Venezuela’s borders, they only grew emboldened.

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I asked how Maduro can be unseated. “We must remain committed to ‘Operation Freedom’ and keep building up pressure within Venezuela,” Guaidó said. “And the international push that has been vital thus far must maintain momentum.”

In addition, Guaidó has offered an amnesty — approved by the National Assembly, the country’s legislative body — to members of the military and government officials who reject the regime, as well as the promise of free elections once Maduro is finally removed from office. But this hasn’t been enough.

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Venezuela is at a stalemate. High-ranking military officers have refused to turn their back on Maduro. The atmosphere in the streets is one of fear. When I visited the country in February, I saw troops, police officers and “colectivos” (pro-Maduro groups of armed civilians) all over Caracas. Military guards patrol Miraflores Palace, the official presidential residence, as if the country was at war. In restaurants, people rarely voice their discontent with the regime for fear of being reported. Venezuela has become a police state, with thousands of intelligence agents sent from Cuba — a longtime ally — to prop it up.

Looking further back, Latin America has had to contend with a long and sad history of U.S. invasions. It begs the question: Would Guaidó consider invoking Article 187.11 of the constitution, authorizing foreign military missions in Venezuela? And could the topic end up splitting the opposition? “The subject is not a cause for division,” Guaidó said. “It is a possibility among many others available to us in our effort to rebuild Venezuela. It is a sensitive subject. And it wouldn’t be an act of external aggression, but rather of international cooperation. We would have to handle a situation like that responsibly.”

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So, what can be done to solve the crisis? “We have three real options: a transitional government followed by an election; a sui generis transition, like in 1958 in Venezuela [when a military board unseated the dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez]; or the use of force, but not necessarily involving foreign parties,” Guaidó said. “Right now, the armed forces are not happy with what Maduro is doing.”

So far, Maduro hasn’t attempted to arrest Guaidó, who has traveled in and out of Venezuela several times. In this tug of war, neither side is willing to relinquish a single inch of power to the other. But even this delicate balance is in itself a welcome change. It is a kind of balance that was never achieved while Hugo Chávez was alive.

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Guaidó’s greatest accomplishment is that he has managed to give hope to the people of Venezuela, allowing them to imagine a different future, at a time when all hope seemed lost.

“When will we see you in Miraflores Palace?” I asked finally.

“We would like for it to happen in hours or days,” he answered cautiously. “Never before have we reached this point. And if we persist, I feel — and this is the general perception here in Venezuela — that it will happen very soon.”

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P.S. You can watch my interview with Juan Guaidó here: bit.ly/2Wwn9Mg.

Jorge Ramos, an Emmy Award-winning journalist, is a news anchor on Univision.

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