After weeks of tense build up, violence erupted on Venezuela’s borders this weekend. Venezuelan soldiers fired tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of their own countrymen who had come to the country’s borders with Colombia and Brazil to collect the foreign aid sitting on the other side. Hundreds have been injured, and at least four have been killed in this ongoing standoff. Only two trucks of the humanitarian aid, which includes food and medicine desperately needed by the Venezuelan people, have made it into the country. Juan Guaido, recognized by many countries as Venezuela’s president, organized the effort of Venezuelans to bring the foreign aid into the country. But these efforts have been stymied so far by a military loyal to Nicolas Maduro—the other man who claims to be Venezuela’s president.
Maduro, who became president in 2013, has consolidated power by suppressing dissent, preventing opponents from running and interfering in elections to pack the federal government with his allies. Maduro is now the country’s de facto dictator. During his reign, Venezuela suffered a disastrous economic collapse. Though Venezuela had formerly been one of the richest countries in Latin America, around 90 percent of Venezuelans now live below the poverty line. An estimated three million people have fled the country. Those who remain face hyperinflation that makes it nearly impossible to buy food and medicine. The foreign humanitarian aid Maduro has blocked from crossing into Venezuela thus poses an existential threat to Maduro: if Guaido can successfully distribute it, Venezuelans may recognize him as the legitimate president instead of Maduro. It is out of fear of these consequences that Maduro is currently blockading the aid from getting into the country.
Guaido declared himself to be the legitimate president of Venezuela in January. As president of the National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body, Guaido said that the Constitution empowered him to take over the presidency because Maduro had not been elected in a fair election. Several countries quickly backed the decision, including the United States and Canada. Maduro, however, has refused to step down. While there are signs that Maduro’s grip on the country is weakening, there is much for Guaido to accomplish still before he can successfully assume the presidency.
The signs of weakness in Maduro’s regime are very apparent, as Maduro is incredibly unpopular among the Venezuelan people. A recent survey of 1,200 interviews conducted by the company Hercon Consultores found that only 4.9 percent of Venezuelans would be “very willing” to defend Maduro’s right to the presidency, compared to 61.3 percent who were “very willing” to defend Guaido. Thus, it is clear that Venezuelans resoundingly blame Maduro for their country’s economic disaster. As more people starve, it has even become commonplace for Venezuelans to refer to their weight loss as the “Maduro diet.”
Adding fuel to this fire, Venezuelans see Maduro as indifferent to his people’s suffering and more concerned about consolidating his own power. Many view the 2018 election in which Maduro was re-elected as a sham, in part because Maduro forbade other candidates from running. A significant number of Venezuelans do not view Maduro as having a legitimate claim to the presidency. However, the resounding public disapproval of Maduro does not eliminate the obstacles between Guaido and the presidency.
To stake his claim to the presidency, Guaido must first find a way to distribute the humanitarian aid piling up on Venezuela’s borders, as shortages of food and medicine continue to plague the country. If Guaido can successfully lead the humanitarian effort, it would cement him as the legitimate president in the eyes of Venezuelans who are in dire need of aid. If, however, he fails to alleviate his people’s suffering, it will certainly send waves of doubt regarding his legitimacy.
Several obstacles stand in Guaido’s way. First, Maduro’s blockade on Venezuela’s borders poses a physical challenge. Because the United States has led much of the aid effort, Maduro has justified his blockade by portraying the situation as a classic example of the United States interfering with the sovereignty of a Latin American nation. He has suggested that the aid is a Trojan Horse for a US military invasion. That claim has historical significance for Venezuela: in 2002 the United States supported a movement that attempted to oust Venezuela’s popular, democratically-elected president at the time, Hugo Chavez. When that movement failed, Chavez returned to power and criticized the United States for meddling in the country. Because Chavez still had a strong popular following at the time, many Venezuelans also resented the United States’ intervention. Maduro is attempting to tap into this historical sentiment by claiming that Guaido is an American puppet.
However, there are notable differences between this situation and the attempted coup of Chavez: unlike Maduro, Chavez was democratically elected and was more popular during the time of his coup.
In response to Maduro’s blockade, Guaido has called for volunteers to go to the border, collect, and help distribute the aid. In making this call, Guaido is betting that the soldiers stationed at the border will not attack their own people, especially considering that many soldiers need the aid as well. However, the violence of the past few days has shown that many soldiers are indeed willing to attack their own people out of loyalty to Maduro. While a small number of soldiers have defected to the opposition, the military is still overwhelmingly preventing the aid from crossing into Venezuela.
Another obstacle is that many international aid organizations, such as the Red Cross, have refused to support the effort because they say it violates their commitment to neutrality. Such organizations argue that helping Guaido distribute aid to the Venezuelans is tantamount to helping overthrow the Maduro regime. Their concerns are certainly founded: if the military allows the aid, it will amount to tacit obedience of Guaido’s orders and a disobedience of Maduro’s. Guaido would be able to use this as leverage to show that he, and not Maduro, controls the military and, further, that he is the legitimate leader of the country.
Most important to Guaido’s success is that he must gain the support of the military. Ever since overthrowing dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, Venezuela’s military has been the deciding factor in who controls the country. If the military decided to overthrow Maduro, it could do so easily. Maduro has held on to power thus far because enough of the military has decided it is in their best interests not to do this, as it has many incentives to remain loyal. While lower-level soldiers have suffered along with the rest of the country, top military leaders live lavish lives under Maduro. Active-duty and retired officers profit from running important ministries and state entities, including food distribution networks, the state oil company and the state arms factory. Pledging loyalty to Guaido would throw all of these benefits into question. Additionally, the military has been accused of crimes ranging from human rights abuses to drug trafficking. Though the opposition has offered amnesty were the military to pledge allegiance to Guaido, military leaders are skeptical of the sincerity of this offer.
Thus, currently, the military looms as the largest threat to Guaido’s bid for the presidency. By remaining largely loyal to Maduro, the military has kept him in power. As a result, many Venezuelans are calling on the military to overthrow Maduro. As of this Saturday, five military leaders have defected to the opposition—a notable victory, but not enough to seriously threaten Maduro’s grip. President Trump urged the Venezuelan military to accept the Guaido movement’s “generous offer” of amnesty, or else face dire consequences. Guaido has even called for other countries to consider “all options” in overthrowing Maduro, implicitly asking for foreign military intervention. While the United States is currently reluctant to use military force to help overthrow Maduro, it may reverse this position if the situation grows more desperate.
Ultimately, until Guaido gets the support of the military and can distribute the humanitarian aid, he will not be recognized as the president. However, as Venezuelans grow more desperate and more frustrated with Maduro, it is beginning to look like the military will support the transition of power into Guaido’s hands. What remains unclear is how long this transition will take. Even if soldiers do allow humanitarian aid to cross the border in the next few days, military leaders have to be assured that they can expect amnesty and economic security if they pledge allegiance to Guaido. Thus, humanitarian aid—and a recognition of Guaido’s government—could come to Venezuelans soon, but only if the military decides to change teams. For Venezuelans in dire need of food and medicine, the crisis at their borders is about the survival of both their people and their democracy.
Meghan Ward is a Contributing Writer for the Gate.
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