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On Tuesday, the lid blew off the long-simmering political crisis in Venezuela. In the morning, opposition leader Juan Guaidó issued a video that depicted him at a military base in the capital, Caracas, announcing the beginning of the “final phase” to remove President Nicolás Maduro from office. He suggested that significant factions within the country’s security forces were on his side and urged his supporters to take to the streets in “nonviolent” protests to speed the collapse of the Maduro regime.

“People of Venezuela, the end of usurpation has arrived,” Guaidó declared.

He stood alongside his mentor and charismatic opposition leader Leopoldo López, whose presence itself, my colleagues reported, “signified a defiant break from government authority.” López had apparently escaped house arrest with the help of the guards assigned to watch him; on Twitter, he urged his compatriots to “conquer” their freedom.

In the United States, Trump administration officials cheered the developments. “We are with you!,” proclaimed Vice President Pence in a tweet in which he deployed the Spanish hashtag #operacionlibertad, or “Operation Liberty,” used to signal the uprising. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was “hopeful” that the rebellion would allow Guaidó, whom the United States and some 60 other nations recognize as Venezuela’s lawful interim president, to effectively restore constitutional order in the country.

While the Maduro regime and its foreign allies, including Russia, warned of a U.S.-inspired “coup” taking place, White House national security adviser John Bolton begged to differ: “Just as it’s not a coup when the president of the United States gives an order to the department of defense,” Bolton told reporters, referring to Washington’s view of Guaidó's legitimacy, “it’s not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try to take command of the Venezuelan military.”

Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes as Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced the "final phase" against President Nicolás Maduro. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But as night fell in Caracas, it seemed Guaidó's gambit had achieved little — let alone the conquest López had urged in the morning. One person died and dozens were injured by rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition in melees in at least five states across the country, my colleagues reported. In one filmed incident, an armored vehicle ran into a group of Guaidó supporters in the capital.

Maduro seemed to hold the line. He vowed “nerves of steel” on Twitter. He insisted that he maintained the “total loyalty” of the security forces, though rumors swirled of detentions of a handful of senior officers linked to the plot, as well as the defection of the chief of the country’s secret police who now appears to be in hiding. Reports indicated that at least 25 soldiers from the Venezuelan army had defected and sought sanctuary in the Brazilian Embassy, but there was no widespread insurrection by the armed forces.

“If Guaidó and López fail to split the military and rally top brass to their cause, then a big question is what happens to them personally, and to the opposition cause more broadly,” Shannon O’Neil, a Venezuela expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Washington Post on Tuesday afternoon. “They could end up tonight in jail or worse. They are taking a huge leap today.”

After that huge leap, it seems, the duo stumbled. Reports circulated that certain senior military officials within the regime had tacitly agreed to join the uprising, but then, for reasons that remain unclear, backtracked.

There was no swift victory for the opposition. Instead, at risk of being seized again, López took shelter in the Chilean Embassy in Caracas. Aides close to Guaidó said he was safe, though they did not disclose his location out of security concerns. In an evening statement, he called for renewed protests on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Maduro supporters joined a large rally outside Miraflores, the presidential palace, while government leaders described the day’s proceedings as a failed conspiracy carried out by a small group of military plotters.

By the evening, the Trump administration seemed to be lamenting what could have been. On CNN, Pompeo suggested that he knew Maduro had been preparing to leave the country for Havana, but was dissuaded by the Kremlin and encouraged to stay. Maduro denied this in an appearance on State TV late Tuesday, calling the day’s events a “failed” coup instigated by the United States.

In tweets and a video released by the White House, Bolton identified leading Maduro regime officials, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, as figures who might have secretly negotiated with Guaidó, but had reneged on their commitments to follow through with the uprising.

“There have been some interesting negotiations among Venezuelans inside the regime and outside the regime about returning to the constitution,” Elliot Abrams, the U.S. envoy to Venezuela, told reporters at the State Department. “They negotiated for a long time the means of restoring democracy, but it seems that today they are not going forward.”

Padrino appeared in a live telecast dressed in combat fatigues, standing by a portrait of Maduro. “Here, Venezuelans, you have your armed forces,” he said. “We ask that you don’t fall under the ‘fake news’ that is trying to confuse you. . . . We are protecting you.”

President Trump accused Cuban “troops and militia” of bolstering the Maduro regime and threatened a “full and complete embargo” of the island. Pompeo warned Maduro’s regime and its allies of severe consequences should Guaidó be detained. And Bolton reiterated the White House’s perennial warning that “all options” — presumably including military ones — “are on the table.”

The White House has taken a conspicuous line on Venezuela. In a lengthy profile on the national security adviser, the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins suggested that Latin America is “a place where his incentives align” with Trump’s. The president is bent on securing the votes of an entrenched Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora in Florida, many of whom hope for the downfall of the leftist regimes in the countries they felt compelled to leave behind. Bolton, an ideologue who loathed the Obama administration’s thaw with Cuba, is keen on both weakening Havana and chasing Moscow out of Venezuela.

Bolton spoke in April before a Miami gathering of veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the failed 1961 U.S.-backed attempt to unseat the recently installed communist government in Cuba. Bolton told the assembled crowd that the attack failed because it was not sufficiently supported by American air power. Under the Trump administration, allies in Latin America would not be so neglected, Bolton seemed to suggest.

"The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well,” he declared, referring to the domineering 19th-century American policy. “It’s our hemisphere.” But, at least for now, the White House doesn’t seem to be getting its way.

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