Venezuela: The Card Game Under the Table

The incident of the failed incursion raises Juan Guaidó’s crisis of representation, due to his insistence that “all options are on the table.” To overcome this, he must mend his authority by regaining the confidenceof and connection to all democratic sectors of the country.

The Venezuelan conflict has reached such a level of severity that it threatens to definitively erode the figure of Juan Guaidó after the initial links found between advisors in his inner circle with the American ex-Green Beret Jordan Goudreau, who led a failed insurrection on the coast of the country.

Guaidó’s political survival depends not only on his capacity to rebuild  what was already a fragile alliance of political parties to promote a transition to democracy, but also on his ties to the country’s civil society, which today is debating whether or not to distance itself from the man designated “Interim President” by the National Assembly.

For several years the Venezuelan people have lost their capacity to be surprised. Because of  this, on May 3, when it became clear that the government of Nicolás Maduro had intercepted a boat of individuals who attempted to initiate an insurrectional campaign against the Miraflores presidential palace, the first reactions on social media were of skepticism.

Under the state of emergency, which has imposed a quarantine on the entire country since February 13, the news has not stopped coming: a judicial decision by the United States to offer millions of dollars in reward money for information that leads to the capture of Nicolás Maduro and his inner circle; the declassification of images of UFOs by the Pentagon; the return of thousands of Venezuelan migrants; the scarcity of gasoline across the entire country; the conflict between Miraflores and the most important national producers of food, and a multi-day clash between criminal groups for control of the largest neighborhood in Eastern Caracas.

Two days before Sunday, May 3, the Associated Press published a report by journalist Joshua Goodman describing a bizarre conspiracy to overthrow Nicolás Maduro, a plot in which implicated, in addition to Goudreau himself, leaders of the Venezuelan opposition, military deserters, retired general Cliver Alcalá, and foreign business owners. When the far-fetched plan materialized 48 hours later, active local tweeters displayed prudent skepticism.

As hours passed and more details emerged, they went accumulating evidence of its plausibility. The first was the journalist Patricia Poleo, who, from exile in Miami, held an interview with the ex-Green Beret, who revealed recordings of his conversations with Juan Guaidó and a contract signed by both parties. The next day, when the second boat was captured, one of those aboard was revealed to be Adolfo Baduel, son of General Raul Isaias Baduel, a political prisoner of great significance to Chavismo.

That day, what finally convinced the skeptics was a series of press interviews with JJ Rendón, whose signature appeared on the contract displayed by Goudreau, in which he recognized that there had indeed been an initial accord but that it had been dismissed due to “inconsistencies” on the part of the security contractor company. Instead of clarifying the situation, the declarations by Rendón—designated as a member of the “Strategy Committee of the Interim Government” in August 2019—blurred the details further. For the Washington Post, he confirmed that “Guaidó was saying that all of the options were on the table and under the table. We were fulfilling this goal.” His admissions in these interviews irritated more than one observer. The episode became the best gift to maintain the precarious stability of the government of Nicolás Maduro.

On May 8, the political party Primero Justicia published a statement rejecting the events that occurred in the Caribbean coast. Including the facts of April 30, 2019—when Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez, along with a group of soldiers, called on the rest of the armed forces to rise up from a bridge near the La Carlota military airport—they maintained that such strategies  “end up frustrating our people and destroying the confidence among those fighting for political change,” adding that, “We have spend years rejecting Cuban interference in our country, and we also radically reject contracting with illegal groups.”

2 days prior, on May 6, a statement signed by 8 parties (Primero Justicia, Accion Democratica, Un Nuevo Tiempo, Voluntad Popular, Proyecto Venezuela, Copei, Encuentro Ciudadano, and Movimiento Progresista) was released, in which they expressed that “The democratic forces neither promote nor finance guerrillas, small-scale armed attacks, nor paramilitary groups,” adding that “the democratic forces support a peaceful exit that produces tranquility and stability to all Venezuelans and their families.”

Although both statements insisted on the creation of a “National Emergency Government” with the different sectors of the country, the statement by Primero Justicia—which, judging by its electoral base, is the most important opposition party in the country—also demanded the destitution of the advisors involved with illegal groups, an investigation by the National Assembly, and the reinstitution of decision making mechanisms in the opposition and the so-called “Center of Government:” “out of legitimate respect for unity and a return to focusing on the political fight to remove Maduro from power.”

Ambiguity as a Strategy

The response by Juan Guaidó has been erratic. On Sunday May 3, he referred to the incident as a false positive, or a criminal episode manipulated by Miraflores. The next day, he repeated this statement about the incident, incorporating a call to respect respect for the human rights of the detained persons.

On Friday, May 8, when JJ Rendón had already disclosed that he had paid Goudreau $50,000 for costs, he returned to the “false positive” narrative. While this text was being prepared, Guaidó’s communications team announced, in a short three paragraph announcement, that “President Juan Guaidó accepted the resignation of the advisors and thanked their dedication and commitment to Venezuela,” second paragraph, and “In this way, Rendón and Vergara reiterated their support for the democratic cause and to President Juan Guaidó and called on all national and international actors to reinforce their support for the interim president and the need to create a National Emergency Government as the only way to save Venezuela from an unprecedented catastrophe,” final paragraph. If the strategy is to simply turn the page, it will far less easy to do so than in the past

Although in recent surveys, Guaidó has started to receive more rejection than approval, he continues to be by far the most popular politician. However, his position as president of the National Assembly, in large part the source of his international support, has its days numbered. It is mandated by law that new legislative elections occur by next December. Today the National Assembly has an opposition majority which is the primary obstacle for Nicolás Maduro to obtain new finances from abroad. The primary value of Guaidó, having brought together opposition factions in January 2019, today appears to have vanished. His future as a political leader depends not only on the reformulation of his personal relationships with political forces, but also on his relationship with the social sector, which today is marked by distrust.

The distancing of social organizations, or at least those most visible in the country, from the figure of Juan Guaidó has been gradual. It began as early as February 2019, when organizations that carry out humanitarian work and human rights defense questioned the political use of the humanitarian assistance that the opposition attempted to bring into the country by force from various border points. On April 30, during the “taking of the La Carlota bridge,” they debated in private this shift towards an insurrectional strategy to achieve “the end of Maduro’s usurpation.”

In different forums and assemblies of citizen activism, actors began to express the need for civil society to have its own profile in the conflict, and to be able to publicly question the deviations and errors of the political leadership for a transition to democracy.

At the beginning, the dialogue process facilitated by Norway generated high expectations and the possibility of advancing towards a negotiated, political solution to the conflict. And, when this effort was abruptly terminated, giving rise to a parallel negotiation between the government and a group of minority opposition parties, various activists concluded that the failure of the negotiations was a result of exclusion from decision-making processes within the ‘interim government,’ and the ambiguity of the concept that “all scenarios are on the table.” Later, the renewal of the National Assembly’s leadership—which usually occurs in the first days of each year—increased the confrontation and the erosion of their authority, while Nicolás Maduro formed his own, parallel leadership. This is where we were when the coronavirus arrived to Venezuela.

In the face of the current dire circumstances, the argument of “not giving  ammunition to Maduro,” has become significantly weaker as a strategy of inhibiting legitimate public criticism of the opposition leadership. Such criticism is coming from those  who form part of grassroots organizations, who have long demanded in different ways that the leadership should demonstrate, without hesitation, a peaceful strategy that rejects the desperation and short-sightedness of violence. If Juan Guaidó finds himself today at a crossroads, his ability to proceed will not only require a renovation of his alliance with political parties, but also a renewed relationship with the various actors of civil society, regaining their lost trust under the conviction that a movement to salvage democracy can only be carried out democratically.

This piece was originally posted on La Silla Vacia in Spanish. It has been translated to English with the author’s permission.