CARACAS, Venezuela — In a collapsing country struggling with hunger and repression, Pasqual Paulino felt a rush of hope this week when opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched his defiant bid for a military uprising against President Nicolás Maduro.
Yet even in his disappointment after its failure, he sees one thing that could yet make a bad situation worse.
U.S. military intervention.
“We don’t want it,” the 18-year-old law student said in between chants at an anti-Maduro protest on Thursday. “Do more sanctions. Apply more diplomatic pressure. And we thank you for what you’ve done. But do not send your military. That would spark a civil war and only divide Venezuelans. If we know anything, it’s that especially now, we need to stay united.”
While the White House and the Pentagon are debating the wisdom of a military intervention in Venezuela, after the failure this week of Guaidó’s bid to oust Maduro, the question is getting a more serious airing here.
Some opposition supporters, particularly frustrated street protesters, now say they favor the once inconceivable — “Yanqui” troops landing in the Bolivarian Republic to remove Maduro.
But despite the setbacks of the week, Venezuela’s senior opposition leaders remain largely opposed to U.S. military intervention, according to opposition officials and people familiar with their thinking.
Many believe U.S. troops could ignite internal conflicts within the military, irregular forces linked to Maduro and criminal cartels. Intervention would also undermine Guaidó’s claim to be a grass roots Venezuelan leader by seeming to confirm that he’s exactly what Maduro has claimed: A puppet of the United States.
A U.S. military intervention would “bring more problems than solutions,” said Carlos Valero, a Guaidó supporter in the National Assembly.
Valero said the opposition must continue to exert pressure internally. He insisted that it had demonstrated its strength this week “despite the fact that for now the armed forces have refused a change.”
“That,” he said, “will change.”
The military declined to respond to Guaidó’s call on Tuesday, and Maduro remains in power. But the opposition here still views the socialist leader as far weaker now than he was before the week’s events.
Talks between opposition leaders and senior Maduro officials that have come to light this week suggest deception in his inner circle. And despite Guaidó’s actions, neither prosecutors nor the pro-Maduro Supreme Court have issued an arrest warrant for him — a sign, his allies say, of just how weak Maduro is.
“The only one promoting an armed conflict here is Maduro,” Valero said. “The opposition is not seeking a military intervention. We are seeking peaceful change, through the power of the people to shake civil society, and eventually include the armed forces in our fight.”
Valero said opposition leaders are meeting to plan a way forward — one that includes outreach to the poor, who have largely remained on the sidelines as the middle and upper classes demonstrate against Maduro. The poor have less access to social media and the Internet, which have been driving the protests. He said coordination with the United States, Europe and other Latin American nations against Maduro will also continue.
Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January after Maduro claimed victory in elections widely viewed as fraudulent. The 35-year-old engineer has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the United States and more than 50 other nations. Russia, China, Cuba and a few others back Maduro.
U.S. officials have said repeatedly that they favor a peaceful transfer of power in Venezuela, but all options remain on the table.
As Venezuela’s opposition leaders reject U.S. intervention, protesters in the streets are growing increasingly frustrated and tired of the bloodshed. At least four people were killed in protests this week, bringing the number for the year to 57. This week’s victims included boys aged 14 and 16; dozens more have been wounded.
U.S. intervention, some in the street say, might now be the only way to remove Maduro.
Guaidó has called on supporters to keep up the pressure against Maduro with protests and strikes, but it remained unclear how exhausted, crisis-battered Venezuelans would respond. After two days of clashes, the capital on Thursday appeared to return to a measure of normalcy.
That’s what some here are afraid of.
“It’s like it’s just another day — and the question is, what do we do now?” Elsie García asked. The 20-year-old dentistry student joined the same anti-government protest on Thursday as Paulino.
“We’ve tried, we really have, we’ve come out on the streets, but the military is too afraid to turn against Maduro,” she said. “We need intervention. Military intervention. The only place that’s going to come from is the United States.”
Political analyst Félix Seijas, director of the Delphos polling agency in Caracas, says fewer than a fifth of the Venezuelans he has surveyed this year support a military intervention. The numbers have gone up only slightly since the beginning of the year.
“The people who support a military intervention say it is because at this point, they see it as the only option left,” Seijas said. “They say they normally wouldn’t support violence, but are desperate.”
Analysts say the U.S. military could overwhelm Venezuelan air defenses within hours. But the nation still possesses significant Russian-made military hardware, as well as Cuban and Russian military advisers. Few see an outright invasion as likely. Yet even surgical strikes, such as the U.S. operation that nabbed Panama’s Manuel Antonio Noriega in 1989, could leave a power void, stoke internal conflict and undo the coalition of Latin American nations that have assembled behind diplomatic effort to force Maduro out.
Maduro has sought to leverage Trump administration saber-rattling to patriotic effect, warning of an imminent American invasion and decrying Guaidó as Washington’s stooge.
“The empire is investing in dividing us and say there’s a civil war in Venezuela,” Maduro declared Thursday morning during an appearance with troops. “They say they have to intervene, to weaken our homeland.”
Meanwhile, fears grew Thursday that Maduro might yet unleash a fiercer crackdown on dissent. The Supreme Court on Thursday issued an arrest warrant for key leader Leopoldo López, Guaidó’s political mentor.
López escaped house arrest early Tuesday and appeared with Guaidó and the small band of soldiers with whom he called on the military to rise up against Maduro. Notably, no warrant was issued for Guaidó himself — whose arrest has been viewed as a red line by his backers in the Trump administration.
Hours after the Supreme Court decision, López spoke to reporters at the Spanish embassy in Caracas, where he has sought refuge.
He insisted the opposition is strong, and its strategy is “not improvised.” He said Maduro would fall “in the coming weeks.”
“I tell all the people who have lost hope, that that’s the last battle we can lose, because that’s what the dictatorship wants,” he said.
Michael Brice-Saddler in Washington and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow contributed to this story.