On Wednesday, National Assembly president Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president amid an intense day of anti-government protests. Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president since April 2013, responded by claiming his position as the rightful president and suggested Guaidó’s move was an attempted coup. President Trump and other leaders quickly issued statements supporting Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.
What happens now? Such statements alone are unlikely to make the difference. More critical are the dynamics on the ground suggesting a shift in favor of Guaidó and the rest of the anti-chavista opposition who have been attempting to defeat Maduro and his mentor, the deceased former president Hugo Chávez, since the chavistas first came to power in 1999.
The U.S. has sent clear signals — for more than a decade
Trump’s decision to recognize Guaidó sends a clear signal to the Maduro government about where the United States stands — but it’s not a new message. Profound tensions have characterized diplomatic relations between the two countries for more than a decade, and Trump’s announcement itself is largely symbolic.
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It’s possible the U.S. government could use its formal recognition of Guaidó as part of a legal strategy to transfer Venezuelan assets abroad to the opposition-controlled National Assembly, but the effects of such a move would be slow to materialize. If anything, the immediate impact of Trump’s declaration is to provide Maduro an easy target, as Maduro has continued the old Chávez strategy of turning to anti-U.S. rhetoric as a tactic for deflecting domestic frustration.
As of Thursday, Canada along with most of Latin America’s center and right-leaning governments had joined the United States in backing Guaidó — while leftist governments in Bolivia and Cuba continue to stand by Maduro. But countries with a more neutral stance may be most consequential. Mexico and Uruguay have not endorsed Guaidó but instead called for dialogue, and Maduro’s response suggests some openness to their attempt at mediation.
What’s happening on the ground may be more telling
Despite mounting international pressure, the most important dynamics are within Venezuela. Three significant changes over the past week signal the potential for a more imminent regime shift than many analysts would have predicted even a month ago:
1. The opposition formally promised amnesty.
At rallies across the country on Jan. 19, Guaidó promised amnesty to any military members and politicians who defect to the opposition. While the opposition has frequently made overtures toward potential defectors, discussions had stopped short of firm amnesty guarantees. But on Tuesday, the opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a law signaling a commitment to shield defectors from post-transition prosecution.
The Venezuelan Supreme Court, which is controlled by Maduro loyalists, quickly declared the law unconstitutional, but the opposition’s message came through loud and clear. Many scholars have argued that amnesty promises are crucial in facilitating transition because they help assure regime loyalists that they will not face retribution under a post-transition government.
While a variety of factors shape the credibility of amnesty promises, the Venezuelan opposition’s move is significant. Thus, even though the military high command Thursday affirmed its support for Maduro, many former officers purged by the current regime — along with active-duty military entertaining the possibility of defection — may now consider taking action against the Maduro regime, or refuse to defend it. Guaidó later repeated the amnesty offer in his first TV interview, reportedly extending amnesty to Maduro if he agreed to “step aside.”
2. The opposition now seems more united.
Analysts now observe a renewed capacity for coordination within the opposition — an ideologically disparate coalition made up of the remnants of Venezuela’s traditional parties along with many newer organizations, which together represent those left out in the cold with the rise of chavismo.
Following the implosion of Venezuela’s traditional parties in 1998, which I analyzed in my book on party system collapse, the pro- and anti-chavista divide became the primary organizing logic of political competition in Venezuela. Within this basic framework, the anti-chavistas — those opposed to Hugo Chávez and his prioritization of social equality over liberal democratic norms — has consisted of groups who make easier adversaries than friends, including old and new parties, and encompassing divergent class interests. Factions within the opposition have frequently clashed over short-term strategic decisions and long-term goals. These many divisions have proved one of the most significant impediments to the opposition’s success.
My recent work on Venezuela’s post-collapse party system argues that a desire to unseat the chavistas is the sole unifying factor binding the opposition together. They have disagreed bitterly over the best strategies for accomplishing this goal. The more radical factions favored protests, strikes, election boycotts and coup attempts while the moderate wing preferred electoral competition and following regime-established rules, despite an uneven playing field.
But the installation of Maduro for another term on Jan. 10 after his reelection in May in a contest widely condemned as illegitimate appears to have forced even the most recalcitrant opposition moderates to acknowledge that a constitutional power transition may now be out of reach. Maduro’s moves to neutralize the opposition-controlled National Assembly, reducing it to a symbolic role, and complete disregard for free and fair elections has helped push the opposition to the edge.
3. The protests this week showed widespread opposition to Maduro.
The most recent wave of protests seemed to extend beyond the opposition’s traditional middle-class base. Typically, the opposition has drawn support from sectors that were effectively represented by the now-defunct traditional party system, but has struggled to build common cause with groups the old parties ignored — most notably the popular sectors with deep ties to chavismo. The chavista base among the poor, informal working class, and otherwise marginalized have been reluctant to join opposition-led protests, despite growing frustration with the economic and humanitarian crisis.
But evidence that this week’s protests may be reaching into old chavista strongholds suggests Venezuelans across the social and political spectrum are frustrated by Maduro’s failure to address the crisis. While protest participation by the urban poor doesn’t mean clear-cut support for the opposition or its vision — or a rejection of chavismo — it does suggest growing rejection of the current government.
The latest statements by global leaders in support of Guaidó as interim president reiterate previous international efforts to push for regime change in Venezuela. However, these statements serve mostly to draw attention to new developments on the ground, which suggest a greater degree of coordination and strategic acumen among opposition groups, as well as mounting frustration with Maduro’s government across broad sectors of society.
Jana Morgan is associate professor of political science at the University of Tennessee. Her book “Bankrupt Representation and Party System Collapse,” supported by funding from the Fulbright-Hays program, received the Van Cott Outstanding Book Award from the Political Institutions section of the Latin American Studies Association.