The coordination between Trump administration officials in Washington and the Venezuelan opposition in Caracas couldn’t have been more obvious. On Tuesday evening, the night before mass protests called by opposition leader and National Assembly head Juan Guaidó were expected in Venezuela, Vice President Mike Pence suddenly released a video pledging support for overthrowing elected President Nicolas Maduro. Pence called him “a dictator with no legitimate power.”
By Wednesday morning, rumors were circulating in Washington that Trump would soon recognise an interim government in Venezuela. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, tweeted that the whole administration stood “with the people of Venezuela as they seek freedom from the oppression of dictator Maduro.” Midday Wednesday—on the anniversary of a 1958 coup in Venezuela that overthrew a dictator—Guaidó called for the military to rise up against Maduro and declared himself the acting president. Minutes later, the White House announced its formal recognition of Guaidó as Venezuela’s head of state.
Shortly after, Maduro severed ties with the US and gave diplomatic staff 72 hours to leave the country. In the days since Maduro was sworn in for his second term earlier this month, multiple events have revealed a US backed coup in progress. When the 35-year-old Guaidó took the reins of the National Assembly just before Maduro’s inauguration, he was already calling the president a “usurper.” A largely unknown figure before he catapulted to head the country’s legislature earlier this month, Guaidó was a founder of the extreme right-wing Popular Will Party, along with Leopoldo López, known for his role in provoking deadly riots in 2014 that cost 43 people their lives.
Guaidó is an engineer by trade and a graduate of both George Washington University in DC and the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración. The latter is Venezuela’s most elite business school; it played a key role in drafting the neoliberal economic policies of the governments that preceded the late President Hugo Chavez. Guaidó first declared himself interim president on January 11 and was arrested by government intelligence officers under cloudy circumstances two days later.
He was almost immediately released, apparently on the order of Maduro. Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said that the officers involved were already under internal investigation for “conspirational links” with extreme right forces before they had arrested Guaidó. He said the arrest was actually a provocation carried out by opposition supporters within the intelligence services in order to spur Guaidó’s backers into action.
Whatever the circumstances, Washington was quick to jump on the opportunity to voice support for Guaidó. National Security Advisor John Bolton said at the time that the arrest marked “an opportunity for Maduro to step aside.” The far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil also joined in, declaring that the Venezuelan presidency “now corresponded” to Guaidó. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, did the same. All were laying the groundwork for other governments—and especially the United States—to shift official recognition to Guaidó.
Before Washington made the switch official, many countries had already done the same, including Canada, Chile, and Colombia. On Monday, January 21, there was a short-lived mutiny of soldiers in a barracks in Caracas in which weapons were stolen. It was quickly put down, but Guaidó held it up as a supposed example of mass unrest within military ranks toward Maduro. He promised amnesty to any soldiers who take up arms against the government. Tuesday night, January 22, saw a number of provocations, including clashes with police that killed four people as well as the dramatic burning of a statue of Hugo Chavez in the city of San Felix.
It was all preparation for—January 23—when the opposition and Washington launched public coordinated attacks in an attempt to push for the full overthrow of Maduro. Backing Guaidó in his extra-legal bid to take the presidency are most of the disparate and usually divided elements of Venezuela’s major business interests and the old political elite. Alone among the opposition, social democratic leader Henry Allup of the Democratic Action party stressed he would not support any action taken by Guaidó that is not “constitutional.”
The constitutional basis for Guaidó’s position as National Assembly leader, much less as head of state, is already in question. The legislature and all its acts have been declared “null and void” by the country’s Supreme Court. Guaidó persists in asserting the authority to replace Maduro, however, so constitutional constraints seem to be of little concern. Fears are now rising that more direct US intervention may be forthcoming should Guaidó’s efforts on the ground fail.
It was confirmed by a former US official last September that Trump administration officials met with renegade Venezuelan military officers who were planning a coup against the government. There is no evidence Washington has ended such efforts in the months since. Where, the recognition of Guaidó as head of state is a clear escalation of US efforts. Maduro, however, so far appears still able to rely on the support of the bulk of the military as well major sections of Venezuela’s working class and poor. The social welfare and education programs that define the “Bolivarian Revolution” in the minds of many Venezuelans since Chavez was elected 20 years ago still keep many on the side of the government.
The policy failures of the Maduro government, combined with a prolonged campaign of intentional economic sabotage by Venezuelan capital and its international allies, have brought the country to the desperate situation of the present. With the actions taken by the opposition and the Trump administration over the last 24 hours, it appears as if the calculation has been made that Maduro’s domestic support might now have withered sufficiently to allow for an unconstitutional seizure of power—and if necessary, a military coup—to finally remove the socialist government from office.
C J Atkins is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.