People drive their motorcycles
People drive their motorcycles near a burnt bus during antigovernment protests, in Caracas on Tuesday. Image Credit: Reuters

Caracas:It was a ploy that from its outset felt like a long shot. Before dawn Tuesday, Juan Guaido, flanked by his political mentor Leopoldo Lopez and a handful of soldiers who had broken ranks, issued a message to Venezuela and the world: The time to topple Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime was right now.

Failing to arrest Mr. Guaido would be perceived as an important sign for weakness from Mr. Maduro. But arresting Mr. Guaido risks a strong counter-reaction from the US.

- Giancarlo Morelli | Analyst

By dusk, with Maduro still firmly in control of the military command, Lopez had sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas and the streets were beginning to empty of the protesters who had heeded Guaido’s call to join what he called Operation Liberty. While likely not a fatal blow to Guaido and the three-month-old push to unseat Maduro, it was certainly the biggest setback yet. And it raised crucial questions: Will Maduro use this moment to carry out his long-standing threat to jail Guaido once and for all? If that happens, how will the US, the de facto leader of an international coalition backing Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, respond?

How massive were the protests?

Guaido called it the moment for Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy once and for all. But as the hours dragged on, the opposition leader stood alone on a highway overpass with the same small cadre of soldiers with whom he launched a bold effort to spark a military uprising and settle Venezuela’s agonising power struggle. Like past attempts to oust Maduro, the opposition seemed outmanoeuvred again Tuesday. What Guaido dubbed “Operation Freedom” triggered a familiar pattern of security forces using repressive tactics to crush small pockets of stone-throwing youths while millions of Venezuelans watched the drama unfold with a mix of fear and exasperation.

Backers of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro rally
Backers of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro rally in his support outside Miraflores presidential palace during an attempted military uprising in Caracas on Tuesday. Image Credit: AP

Was Maduro heading to Havana?

The whole episode was so bizarre — with Guaido seemingly lacking the military might to have any chance at all — that it was hard to understand the day’s events. One explanation, as related by National Security Adviser John Bolton, was that a deal had been struck behind the scenes and that key members of Maduro’s regime had agreed to flip, paving the way for Guaido to easily assume power. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on CNN that Maduro had in fact been heading to Havana Tuesday, when his allies in the Russian government talked him out of leaving. Russia’s government denied that Wednesday, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling CNN the US was using “fakes as a part of an information war.”

So this was a ‘mediocre coup’ according to Maduro?

Bolton called out Venezuela’s defence minister and chief justice on Twitter, saying this was their last chance to accept Guaido and escape sanctions or “go down with the ship.” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has played a key role in shaping US policy on Venezuela, tweeted that high-ranking Venezuelan officials who publicly support Maduro had “been working to get him out” and that their double cross would soon be exposed. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, one of those officials, took to the airwaves to declare the people involved in the attempted takeover “ridiculous,” calling what had happened “a mediocre coup.”

Why did Trump warn Cuba?

Bolton insisted that it wasn’t a coup d’etat because Maduro had stolen last year’s election; Guaido, as the head of the national assembly, is the constitutionally mandated interim president. He said “Cuban thugs” were threatening members of the Venezuelan military who might otherwise defect. President Donald Trump threatened a “full and complete” embargo of Cuba.

Image Credit: Gulf News

What about a negotiated transition?

Maduro’s offer of negotiations with Guaido, moderated by the Vatican, Mexico or Uruguay, has been rejected by the opposition, which says previous rounds of talks allowed the government to stall for time without making any real concessions.

While some 50 nations, including the US, have declared support for Guaido, Maduro still has powerful backers, notably Russia, China and Cuba.

What do analysts think?

“The opposition called for a civic-military uprising but failed on both ends. Parties didn’t manage to rally and coordinate enough protesters nor did they convince a significant enough factions of the military to break ranks,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas. “Everything was hurried.”

Giancarlo Morelli, with the British analysis group Economist Intelligence Unit, said the uprising will likely force Maduro to make a decision on Guaido’s fate and he will face perils whatever path he takes. “Failing to arrest Mr. Guaido would be perceived as an important sign for weakness from Mr. Maduro,” Morelli said. “But arresting Mr. Guaido risks a strong counter-reaction from the US,” which has been ratcheting up sanctions. There was throughout the day a chimerical quality to the opposition endeavour, not unlike Guaido’s January announcement that he was taking the reins of government. He has named ambassadors and officials and been recognised by more than 50 nations. Without the power of the military, his presidency has been an act purely of symbolism.

Nicolas Maduro
Nicolas Maduro (left) with military commanders and his cabinet members at the presidential palace in Caracas. Image Credit: AFP

Is there genuine discontent in Venezuela?

There’s no doubt that across the country, and within its governing bureaucracy, there is profound discontent with Maduro and broad support for a transition. Guaido and his advisers believed that by declaring an uprising they might actually be able to create one. For a while, it seemed possible. As protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, dozens of exiled military officers stood at the ready in the Colombian border city of Cucuta. But they didn’t cross the bridge into Venezuela, ordered back to their hotels by Guaido’s local representatives, according to Jose Nieto, a former sergeant major in the National Guard.

In the afternoon, Lopez, along with his wife and one of their daughters, entered the Chilean ambassadorial residence, according to that country’s foreign minister, Roberto Ampuero. Lopez later left the residence and went to the Spanish embassy, the Chilean government said.

So there was no damage to Maduro’s credibility?

Largely no, but in one blow to Maduro, the head of Venezuela’s feared intelligence agency announced that he was breaking ranks with the embattled socialist leader. The latest chapter in Venezuela’s political upheaval marks the most serious threat yet to Maduro’s contested rule. The leader, who has been relying on support from Russia and China, was largely absent as events unfolded Tuesday. He finally emerged late in the evening to call the small-scale uprising a failed US-backed coup attempt.

Speaking on state television, Maduro said that the unrest had been quelled and that Venezuela wouldn’t succumb to right-wing forces intent on “submitting our country to a neocolonial economic domination model and enslaving Venezuela.”

“Now you can see a Venezuela largely in peace,” he proclaimed.


FAA bans low flights over Venezuela’s airspace

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Tuesday evening issued an order prohibiting US air operators from flying below 26,000 feet in Venezuela’s airspace until further notice, citing “increasing political instability and tensions”. The FAA notice said any air operators currently in Venezuela, which would include private jets, should depart within 48 hours. American Airlines Group Inc in March said it was indefinitely suspending its flights to Venezuela, as the country continued to struggle with political turmoil and unrest. OPSGROUP, which provides safety guidance to air operators, said options for those choosing to avoid Venezuelan airspace would include routes west via Colombia, or east via Guyana.

Social media remains key to Venezuela’s opposition

Venezuela’s state-run internet service on Tuesday appeared to cut off broad swaths of the nation’s social-media and messaging sites, taking aim at the most critical ways Venezuelans had organised protests and communicated with family amid military clashes and violent unrest. Internet-monitoring groups said CANTV, the state-run internet provider through which most people access the Web, appeared to block or restrict access to a range of websites, including Twitter and Instagram, that opposition leader Juan Guaid and other groups have used to mobilise growing protests against President Nicols Maduro. The video giant YouTube, the search engine Bing, the live-streaming video service Periscope, and chat and messaging services run by Google also appeared to be blocked as part of the latest sweeping move by an authoritarian regime to squash online dissent.

— Agencies