WBEZ Interview: Analyzing Venezuela’s Upheaval

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets on April 30, calling for a military uprising, drawing enthusiastic support from the Trump administration

Below are excerpts from an interview yesterday about the developing situation in Venezuela between WOLA Senior Fellow David Smilde and WBEZ Chicago public radio station. The remarks have been edited for clarity.

Listen to the full interview here.

What happened yesterday?

“I think clearly [the opposition] were playing their strongest card that they had at this moment, to try and get the military to flip. They tried to give every image, every appearance possible that this was a widespread coup and push against Maduro, and that they were succeeding and congratulating each other.

“But that seems to not have been enough. And it seems likely that they will end up arresting Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez. And I’m sure they knew that was a good possibility… I think they think that the international community will step up the pressure even further against Maduro. And that could happen.

“It’s the card they had to play, I think, from their perspective. The situation is that—time is not on the side of the opposition. It’s really hard to keep this type of mobilization going for a long time. Even in a normal context, it’s hard to keep this kind of protest movement going. But in a context where the government controls the institutions, controls the guns, and controls the economy, it’s even more difficult.

“Add to that the fact that the U.S. has placed oil sanctions on Venezuela and those are starting to take effect, and are going to create even further economic chaos, which is going to hurt the people more than it hurts the government. I think the opposition recognizes that it’s going to be losing strength in the coming weeks and months, rather than gaining strength.”

On the Trump administration:

“It’s clear that Venezuela is now a central aspect of Donald Trump’s foreign policy. And it’s been that way really since the beginning of the year.

“They’ve really strongly and vocally supported Guaidó… It does a number of things for Trump. It allows Trump to demonstrate himself as a neo-conservative, at the same time that he’s pulling troops out of Syria and Afghanistan. He’s basically sort of saying that here, in this hemisphere, we are in control and promote democracy even if we pull out of other places.

“It also allows him a campaign issue in Florida, which of course is essential for any feasible map that Trump has in 2020 to re-election.”

On the rhetoric and policy of U.S. officials on Venezuela:

“This is why many of us warned again the United States taking a real protagonistic role over this. It’s certainly helped the opposition and provided some force to the opposition. But now it’s made this about the United States…  and Maduro and his coalition use this to great effect.

“It’s something that doesn’t really help them in terms of opinion polls… but it helps them with keeping the military coalition together, keeping the military onboard. And it also helps internationally. There’s all kinds of solidarity groups and anti-imperialism groups and leaders that take this and make this into something about the United States. And I think that’s been a real drag on the situation.

“It’s meant that the whole situation has returned to Cold War rhetoric, rather than talking about the democratic rights of Venezuelans.”

What about U.S. military intervention?  

“Trump has been saying now for a year and a half, that ‘there is a military option.’ When the opposition actually called on the Trump administration to use a military option at the end of February, they said, ‘well, actually, we believe in a political settlement.’

“What’s clear is that the U.S. has no military assets anywhere around Venezuela right now. It’s not in a position that it could really do anything. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot of appetite among the American public for this… But it can’t be counted out… It’s something we have to keep an eye on really closely…”

The international community 

“There’s been a lot of pressure—the United States has put on pressure, the Lima Group has basically toed the line with the United States in pressuring Venezuela. I think the pressure is necessary, but there needs to be diplomatic efforts also, so that pressure is directed into a positive direction.

“The most interesting effort going on right now is the one started by the European Union, it also includes a number of Latin America countries. It’s called the International Contact Group. They are meeting with the opposition, meeting with the government, doing shuttle diplomacy, trying to broker some new elections. I think that’s a positive effort. I think efforts that try and to get humanitarian aid in are good—the Red Cross brokered a deal between the government and the opposition.

“So there are some efforts. But I think there’s got to be more. They’ve got to be more robust.”