Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader, as the rightful head of state will have little impact unless the country’s top military brass turns against the socialist dictator, Nicolás Maduro. Sadly, they show little sign of doing that.
Guaidó – aged 35 and president of the country’s opposition-controlled National Assembly – had himself sworn in as head of state on Wednesday. Trump formally recognised him minutes later; this was followed in quick succession by Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Panama. Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, joined these calls, saying “the United Kingdom believes Juan Guaidó is the right person to take Venezuela forward.” The EU is calling for new elections but its member states have not yet recognised Guaidó.
Predictably, Russia, Turkey, China, Syria, Bolivia and Cuba lined up behind Maduro. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, called him and insisted that the latest crisis was ‘provoked from abroad’. Jeremy Corbyn – who congratulated Maduro on his 2014 election victory, and was a big fan of his predecessor, the socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez – has refused to condemn Maduro’s assault on Venezuelan democracy and the dramatic impoverishment of the people since he took the reins of power in 2013. Instead, this week Corbyn hosted a group of Latin American diplomats in Parliament, thought to include the Venezuelan Rocío Del Valle Maneiro González. The Labour leader said the roundtable was designed to ‘exchange ideas on a future relationship’ between a Labour government and Latin American countries ‘based on mutual respect and human rights’.With the Labour leader staying quiet on the subject of Venezuela, a party spokesman stepped in to say:
'We oppose outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the US or anywhere else: the future of Venezuela is a matter for Venezuelans. There needs to be a peaceful dialogue and a negotiated settlement to overcome the crisis in Venezuela.”
But the problem is that members of the Venezuelan opposition – mediated by former Spanish PM José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the Vatican – have made numerous attempts to have a dialogue with the Maduro regime but the latter has never done so in good faith.
The closest that Maduro came to being toppled was in September 2016 when up to one million Venezuelans turned out for a march to promote a vote to recall the president. Opposition leaders floated the idea of a huge march on the presidential palace in Caracas, called Miraflores – which could have succeed in ousting Maduro – but in the end this was called off because the Vatican persuaded the opposition to enter into a dialogue with the regime. The talks led nowhere.
It is true that the circumstances today are dreadful for the Venezuelan masses, the hardship is almost beyond our comprehension. The International Monetary Fund is forecasting that inflation will hit ten million per cent this year. It estimates that the economy shrank by a staggering 58 per cent since 2014 and the deep recession shows no sign of abating: it forecasts that GDP will decline by a further five per cent this year.
The minimum wage in Venezuela is under £1.55 ($2) a month. In November, Maduro increased it to 4,500 sovereign bolivars per month but today one dollar fetches 2,400 sovereign bolivars on the black market. In fact, ‘minimum wage’ is a misnomer because it is the amount that most Venezuelans earn every month. Imagine being a pensioner in the country. Your state pension is the same as the minimum wage, so under $2 a month. Eight out of ten medicines are not available. You are terrified of leaving your home because the country’s crime wave has reached astronomic proportions (23,000 murders took place there last year); and your children and grandchildren could well have joined the three million Venezuelans who have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations.
Maduro himself was sworn in for a second six-year term on January 10, following rigged presidential elections in May last year. However, the Labour spokesman is correct on one point: external interference is not likely to oust Maduro. He is a dictator in the vein of Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, or Nicolae Ceaușescu. He only understands force and will not cede power unless the military forces his hand.
Venezuelan generals have benefitted from the Maduro years. They run the country’s multi-million dollar contraband industry; they are heavily involved in drug smuggling from Peru and Colombia to Europe; and they supervise the lucrative distribution of food parcels to the country’s poor. Maduro has been careful to keep them on his side. He has been advised by the Cubans on how to ‘divide and rule’ the military so that coup attempts are kept to a minimum. Only this week, General Vladimir Padrino, the defence minister, accused Guaidó of mounting a ‘coup d'etat’ and said the armed forces would not back a president ‘imposed by shadowy interests’.
A few days ago, military officials stole arms from a National Guard outpost after a sergeant had called for Maduro’s removal but they were quickly arrested. The president is now afraid of speaking in public after an assassination attempt against him with an explosive-laden drone in August last year. The army rank and file are suffering like the rest of Venezuelans.
However, we are only likely to see a proper coup against Maduro once some of the top generals find the cojones to carry it out. Trump is hated by many Venezuelan migrants in the United States because of his proposed wall with Mexico. However, he has gone much further than Obama in trying to undermine the Venezuelan regime. He invited Lilian Tintori, the wife of opposition leader Leopoldo López – who is under house arrest in Caracas – to the White House. Trump's administration has also sanctioned Venezuelan regime officials accused of involvement in drug trafficking, including former vice president Tareck El Aissami.
Trump feels a personal connection to Venezuela; he made Venezuelan friends during the time he had business links to the Miss Universe Organisation. His move to recognise Guaidó is welcome but Maduro is determined to remain in power, as he knows that the only alternative is a prison cell. The likelihood is that he will only be ousted from office when the top generals make a move against him.