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‘This is the moment’

Venezuelans seek to end their socialist dictator’s crushing rule

‘This is the moment’

Anti-government protesters cheer after Juan Guaidó declares himself interim president. (Boris Vergara/AP)

In one of the most remarkable moments in Latin America’s modern history, thousands of Venezuelans packed a public square in Caracas on Jan. 23 and exulted as Juan Guaidó took the oath of presidency, declaring dictator Nicolás Maduro’s power illegitimate.

U.S. officials quickly declared support for the new leadership and urged Maduro to relinquish his brutal grip on a country suffering from one of the most severe economic and humanitarian crises in the world.

Decades of socialist rule have left the country staggering under food shortages and an inflation rate that has hit an estimated 1 million percent. Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country in the last five years.

Maduro has denied his country is starving, and he refuses outside aid. Last year, he claimed a reelection victory in a presidential contest considered fraudulent by many—including some members of his own government.

By early January, a 35-year-old first-term congressman had formed a bold plan to declare Maduro’s rule defunct. 

Juan Guaidó grew up in a low-income neighborhood just north of Caracas, where government payments to needy families were popular in the days of former President Hugo Chávez. But as socialist policies failed and the economy has collapsed, suffering has deepened among those once loyal to Chávez and his protégé Maduro.

Fernando Llano/AP

Anti-government protesters cheer after Juan Guaidó declares himself interim president. (Fernando Llano/AP)

As head of the country’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó invoked a clause in Venezuela’s constitution: If a president claims victory in a fraudulent election, the head of the National Assembly may become interim president until free elections are held.

U.S. officials told Guaidó they would back him if he moved ahead. On Jan. 22, Vice President Mike Pence released a video aimed at reaching the thousands planning mass protests against Maduro’s rule the next day: “We are with you.”

The next afternoon, Guaidó raised his hand in a Caracas public square and swore the oath of presidency. In a dramatic moment, thousands of supporters raised their hands in solidarity. 

Ricardo Ball, a financial adviser and entrepreneur in Caracas, described the scene to Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute in a live-streamed video call a week later. “It’s not him alone taking the oath,” said Ball. “It’s everyone else taking the oath alongside him in support of the constitution.”

But not all Venezuelans rejoiced: Maduro called the events a coup, and the leader of the country’s armed forces declared the military’s loyalty to Maduro. The move was seen as a blow to hopes for a quick and peaceful transition of power. 

On the Sunday after Guaidó took the oath of office in Caracas, state-run television stations aired footage of Maduro towering over dozens of kneeling soldiers at Fort Paramacay in central Venezuela. Maduro boomed: “Are you coup plotters?” The armed soldiers boomed back: “No!” The dictator responded: “Traitors never, loyalty, always.”

On the same morning, Guaidó attended Mass in a Catholic church in Caracas, flanked by his wife and mother. He later pleaded with the military, “Please, brothers, don’t attack our people.”

Potential violence is a deep-rooted fear for those facing a military that has cracked down on protests in the past. And some analysts note that turning against Maduro won’t be easy even if military members want to support Guaidó. Advisers from Cuba head Maduro’s personal security, and they run intelligence operations to ferret out potential traitors in the military ranks.

For soldiers willing to back Guaidó, the interim president has underscored a law the National Assembly has passed to offer amnesty to military members who support the new government. The offer of amnesty could rankle Venezuelans who have endured military abuses, but Guaidó likely sees it as vital incentive to persuade soldiers to back his interim presidency.

In the days after his oath, Guaidó’s supporters made treks to military outposts to distribute copies of the amnesty law to soldiers patrolling on duty. Some reported that the soldiers threw the copies back at them or burned the papers while they looked on.

Still, pressure mounted on Maduro: Leaders in most Latin American nations threw their support behind Guaidó, and some leaders of the European Union said they would back Guaidó if Maduro didn’t call for new elections by Feb. 3.

Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Maduro (left) and Venezuela’s Defense Minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino gesture after Maduro’s Jan. 10 inauguration for a second term. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

The entrenched Maduro did find support in a handful of nations, including China, Russia, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. 

U.S. officials said they would try to increase economic pressure on Maduro by transferring control of oil revenues to Guaidó’s team, but the logistics of such a plan remained formidable and threatened to potentially worsen the economy.

It’s hard to imagine Venezuela’s economy growing worse. In his call with the Acton Institute, Ricardo Ball said the world was watching the end product of socialism unfold on a bleak stage. He noted Margaret Thatcher’s famous observation that the problem with socialist governments is that they eventually run out of other people’s money. “This is the moment,” said Ball. “This is the moment the money has run out.” He thinks Venezuelans are more willing to back a new government despite the dangers. “They fear more dying of hunger than the Maduro regime,” he said. “That’s where we are right now.”

(For Americans interested in learning lessons from Venezuela’s failed experiment, Ball noted that socialism can look appealing depending on when you take the picture. “If you take the picture early, it’s all beautiful,” he said. “If you take it later, it begins to fall apart.”)

Guaidó seemed to grasp the dangers he could face for pushing Venezuelans toward an era of freedom. Two days after taking the oath of office, he gave a speech that state-run television stations didn’t run: It was only accessible to citizens online over tenuous internet connections sometimes controlled by the government. 

The interim leader noted the challenges ahead, and he urged his supporters to carry on if government officials detain him: “They can cut a flower, but they can’t hold back the spring.” 

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

Comments

  • news2me
    Posted: Fri, 02/01/2019 11:34 am

    I hope we don't get involved in this like we have so many countries...pay terrorists under the guise of freedom fighters like we did with ISIS (Obama's jr. varsity). 

    Maduro's personal bank accounts should be shut down because he probably got most of his money from the U.S.