Venezuela Now Has Two Presidents Dueling for Control of Country
(Bloomberg) -- Juan Guaido says he is president of Venezuela. So too, of course, does Nicolas Maduro, the authoritarian leader who has ruled the crisis-ravaged country since the death of his mentor Hugo Chavez six years ago.
Guaido has the backing of the people, thousands of whom took to the streets Wednesday, along with a host of foreign governments, led by the U.S., Canada and Brazil, that recognized the congressman as the rightful head of state. But Maduro has control of the security forces, the military, the courts, the treasury coffers and the state oil giant.
This makes Guaido’s claim to power, for now at least, largely symbolic -- part of his bid to ratchet up pressure on Maduro to step down. The question is whether the military brass will finally break ties with Maduro and demand a transition.
“The name ’president’ doesn’t have meaning until you have control of the reins of government,” said Gregory Weeks, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “And you do not have that until you have control of the military.”
In many ways, this is the same question that has been hanging over the country since Chavez began the regime’s descent into authoritarianism more than a decade ago. But now it comes with a new sense of urgency as the threat of greater foreign intervention builds.
The Trump administration has prepared to sanction Venezuelan oil exports, according to people familiar with the matter, though it hasn’t decided whether to take that step. Such a move would cripple the finances of a country already mired in its worst economic collapse on record. Oil slid below $53 a barrel Thursday as a darkening outlook for the global economy and signs of rising U.S. inventories overshadowed the risks to Venezuela.
And Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, is seeking to win over the support of military officers by offering amnesty to those who defect. As he declared himself the interim president in front of thousands of supporters in Caracas, he said he will “hand in” -- he didn’t say where or how -- the amnesty measure recently approved by the assembly that offers soldiers forgiveness for alleged corruption and human rights abuses if they join the opposition.
“We know this is going to have consequences, and we know its necessary to stay in the streets of Venezuela until we achieve democracy,” Guaido said. The crowd cheered and sang the national anthem.
Before the masses scattered, U.S. Vice President Michael Pence fired out a tweet announcing that Guaido had the backing of President Donald Trump. Trump himself recognized Guaido as interim president in a statement promising to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to “restore democracy,” and encouraged other governments to follow suit.
Many did, including Canada and most of Venezuela’s neighbors, 11 countries that make up the Lima Group. The European Union called for the “immediate political process leading to free and credible elections.”
Hours later, Maduro appeared in front of thousands of red-clad supporters at Miraflores Presidential Palace and defiantly broke relations with the U.S. He gave diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, an order that Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. would not heed because it doesn’t recognize Maduro as president of Venezuela.
“No one throws in the towel here,” Maduro said, flanked by his wife and confidants. “We’re going to fight.” Afterward, the defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, tweeted that the military rejected an “imposed president” and continues to back Maduro.
Russia’s government, which has provided major financial and military support to Maduro, continued to support him. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of parliament, called the efforts to oust Maduro illegal, the Interfax news agency reported. Another senior legislator called the events “a coup d’etat.”
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on “all parties to remain rational and keep calm, reaching a political settlement through peaceful dialogue.” Asked directly if China recognizes Maduro, Hua noted that the government in Beijing sent representatives to his inauguration, adding: “We respect Venezuela’s efforts to uphold its sovereignty, independence and stability.”
Investors are betting that regime change may be near. On Wednesday, they bid up prices on Venezuela’s defaulted bonds on speculation that a Guaido government would seek to quickly restructure the debt and renew payments.
Guaido’s bid is audacious, though grounded in Venezuela’s constitution, which allows the head of the legislature to lead a caretaker government in the event of the absence of a lawful one until new election can be held. Maduro began his second six-year term on Jan. 10 in defiance of domestic foes and the more than 60 nations that have refused to recognize his 2018 victory at the polls.
“It’s a very aggressive gamble,” said Christopher Sabatini, Professor of International Relations at Columbia University. “If it doesn’t lead to change, I don’t know what happens.”
People on the streets Wednesday, waving flags and blowing whistles, were clear. “What we want is Maduro out now -- nothing in between,” said Norelys Mena, a 29-year-old human resources administrator from the working-class neighborhood of El Cementario, wearing white in honor of friends and family arrested in past protests. “I know it’s not going to happen overnight, but we don’t want wait any longer.”
The protesters hiked across western and downtown Caracas. Some hurled stones and Molotov cocktails at soldiers, who returned fire with volleys of tear gas. Demonstrations occurred across the country. According to the Venezuelan Social Conflict Observatory, a Caracas nonprofit that monitors national unrest, there were 13 deaths during Wednesday’s protests, two in the capital.
Guaido, seeking to keep the pressure on Maduro, is calling for protests to continue in coming days.
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