The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a plot filled with intrigue and betrayal failed to oust Venezuela’s president

Violent protests erupted in Caracas, Venezuela, after a failed attempt to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
Violent protests erupted in Caracas, Venezuela, after a failed attempt to oust President Nicolás Maduro. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — In the intoxicating early hours of Tuesday morning, Venezuela’s opposition saw a historic goal within reach: President Nicolás Maduro, they were certain, was about to step down. But by noon, a dull panic began to surface. A plan rife with intrigue and betrayal had begun to go south.

Leopoldo López — the country’s most famous political prisoner and mentor of opposition leader Juan Guaidó — helped broker a deal. While still under house arrest, he had met in secret with top Maduro loyalists — including the defense minister — inside López’s cement compound in eastern Caracas, one of several locations where clandestine meetings took place. The agreement: The loyalists would give Maduro up, and retain their positions inside a new interim government headed by Guaidó.

“We moved forward out of trust that the top ranks [of the government] would make announcements against Maduro,” said Freddy Superlano, a senior opposition lawmaker and the architect of Guaidó’s Operation Freedom to “liberate” the nation. “Maduro was going to respond by leaving. We agreed, because he depended on them, nothing else but them sustained him.”

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

The plan was rushed into action a day early, opposition officials say, after chatter surfaced of Guaidó’s possible arrest. Just hours after Guaidó’s call for an uprising of the military, they realized something had gone terribly wrong.

This account provides previously undisclosed details of the plan to oust Maduro and is based on interviews with seven opposition officials with direct knowledge of the developments. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Promised declarations of support from Maduro’s inner circle never came. Instead, Vladimir Padrino López — Maduro’s defense minister and one of the key loyalists meeting with the opposition — went on national television to denounce what he called a “coup.” Suddenly, the dashing Leopoldo López — who had escaped house arrest with help from Maduro’s own intelligence police — was forced to scramble to the Chilean and then the Spanish embassy to seek protection. For hours, Guaidó disappeared. Maduro’s spy chief — a senior conspirator — fled the country.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó called on Venezuelans to protest April 30 and urged the military to "keep advancing" in efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro. (Video: Reuters)

U.S. officials have claimed that Maduro was en route to the airport to flee to Havana, before being stopped by the Russians. Senior opposition officials say they never received that information.

A plan meant to end two decades of Venezuelan socialism had collapsed, signaling a pivotal twist in the campaign to oust Maduro.

But if the failed plot illustrated the lack of a tipping point in Guaidó’s military support, it also underscored Maduro’s fundamental weakness. While Maduro has called Guaidó an outlaw, his forces have yet to attempt to arrest Guaidó.

On Saturday, the opposition is poised to push again, calling a large-scale march toward military instillations even as it seeks to pick up the pieces of the most pivotal week in its effort to oust Maduro

“It’s not that we were naive. We are just trying to find a peaceful way out,” said Superlano. “We have no weapons. And then, we had this opportunity. If you have an opportunity to exit a stalemate without blood and for the benefit of the people, doesn’t it make sense to take it, especially if you don’t have another tangible plan?”

“If that’s naive,” he said, “then let critics crucify us.”

'Environment was tense'

At 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Superlano, a senior lawmaker in Guaidó’s National Assembly, arose early and sped in his beige Toyota to the military base where Guaidó and Leopoldo López had already arrived.

In a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse and suffering from fast-spreading hunger, Guaidó, Venezuela’s self-declared interim president, has called Maduro an “usurper” for claiming to have won elections last year that were widely discredited. That morning, Guaidó stood with members of the armed forces and López.

“Guaidó was serene, as always. Leopoldo tends to be more effusive, but he was calm that morning,” Superlano said. “The environment was tense. But at that point, I think they both expected the bid to succeed.”

López, outside the residence of the Spanish ambassador on Thursday, said that he had met with senior generals to hatch a plan. But, Superlano said, López and other senior opposition operatives had also been negotiating with Defense Minister Padrino López and high court head Maikel Moreno.

At first, the talks were exploratory. But eventually, the opposition began to see “trustworthy” signs that the Maduro loyalists were ready to turn. In fact, they were showing passive support.

Guaidó was being permitted to move freely across the country, and no effort was made to arrest him even though he violated a travel ban by going to Colombia in February to help lead an effort to bring in humanitarian aid.

To close the deal with senior Maduro officials, Leopoldo López offered to let them stay on as part of a transitional government, and guaranteed they would not be prosecuted.

One key mystery is why Padrino and two other senior loyalists backed out at the last moment. Some have suggested that Leopoldo López’s public appearance may have spooked them, describing his arrival in front of the cameras immediately after being freed as an act of grandstanding. Still others suggested they were double agents who remained loyal to Maduro.

Superlano insisted they had not backed out because the plan was launched a day early. “Padrino knew it would happen on the 30th,” he said.

There were, however, potentially controversial elements to the deal. In a country where security forces have used violence to put down street protests — leading to four deaths just this week — keeping former Maduro officials in a transitional government could be highly unpalatable to a significant segment of the population. But opposition officials say they had to stay focused on a single goal: getting Maduro out.

“We have to offer them a role in the transition, and give them more than just amnesty or guarantees,” said Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s designated “ambassador” to the United States. “The discussions are centered on ousting Maduro, and calling for elections to achieve progress.”

But within a few hours after their arrival at the La Carlota air base, the expectations of the opposition leaders sank, especially after Padrino and the other top Maduro officials did not come forward.

At that point, key opposition figures left the La Carlota base and headed to the city’s eastern Plaza Altamira. Guaidó spoke from the roof of a car before leading a march to the west, in which protesters encountered security forces wielding tear gas and rubber bullets.

“It was around noon that we decided that [Leopoldo] López had to seek protection at the Chilean Embassy,” Superlano said. Manuel Figuera, Maduro’s spy chief who had aided in López’s liberation, had fled — Superlano believes to the United States.

Both he and Vecchio pushed back against the narrative of a bungled opportunity. What some hoped would happen in one day, opposition officials insist, will still be achieved. Superlano said negotiations with members of Maduro’s inner circle “are still happening,” and claimed that the regime is “collapsing” from within.

It may simply take longer than hoped.

“Maduro will not sleep calmly a single night of his life,” Vecchio said. “He knows he can trust no one.”

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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