Guaido’s Risky Bet in Venezuela Paid Off. Barely.

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Venezuela’s political opposition is seemingly in a tough place. More than three months after Juan Guaido, leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, assumed the mantle of acting president, receiving the endorsement of more than 50 nations, political stalemate persists and Nicolas Maduro remains in the Miraflores palace.

But instead of rethinking opposition strategy or retreating, Guaido, uncannily perhaps, opted to press his disadvantage.

On April 30, the eve of the traditional May 1 break, he led his supporters to the streets in what was to be a national turning point. Called Operation Liberty, the movement heralded the end of the “usurpation” of Venezuelan power. The uprising was emboldened by opposition firebrand Leopoldo Lopez, whom sympathetic soldiers had sprung from his long house arrest that morning. Yet instead of breaching the military base and converting security forces to the rebel cause, the uprising fizzled into a familiar standoff, with masked protesters tossing rocks at troops who volleyed with tear gas and plastic bullets. By day’s end, Lopez had fled to the Chilean ambassador’s residence and then to the Spanish embassy, and two dozen military defectors had decamped to the Brazilian embassy. Guaido remained leader in claim only.

What were Guaido and his bold rebel band thinking? Forget the hyperventilating over a supposed coup, as Maduro and Chavista diehards charged. Maduro himself blazed a path for regime change by stealing the 2018 presidential elections, outlawing opponents and neutering the legislature — violating the constitution that his mentor Hugo Chavez wrote. “A coup is the overthrow of a democratically elected government by military means,” Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies professor Yascha Mounk wrote on Twitter. “What’s happening is a legitimate — and inspiring! — uprising against a dictator with no democratic legitimacy.”

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The frustrated uprising has not just postponed a peaceable endgame for Latin America’s worst political and humanitarian crisis. It’s also put Venezuela’s hemispheric neighbors on the spot.

Until now, the country’s political dissidents have managed the unimaginable: galvanizing crony-conscious Latin American nations whose fear of blowback at home routinely restrained them from calling out their neighbors, even in the face of autocratic excesses. Under the Lima Group, a crisis compact within the Organization of American States, 11 Latin American nations condemned Venezuela’s government for gaming democracy and violating human rights. They subsequently recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate interim leader and called for Maduro to step aside in favor of national elections.

There were also some fissures in the Americas. Mexico demurred, aligning with Cuba in backing Maduro as Venezuela’s head of state. A dissenting faction, led by Uruguay, Mexico and Caribbean countries, launched a proposed compromise to the Lima Group called the Uruguay Mechanism, calling once again for dialogue. Such appeals are salsa to Maduro’s ears: The Bolivarian leader has parlayed every parley into more time for his spent regime.

The danger of the stymied May Day eve uprising was that it might drive a wedge deeper into this uneasy Latin American consensus. Instead, the Lima Group admirably reiterated its support of Guaido, calling on Tuesday for the Venezuelan Armed Forces to back him as the constitutional leader, and holding Maduro liable for the “indiscriminate use of violence to suppress the process of democratic transition.”

Granted, even some anti-Maduro stalwarts expressed concern over the uprising. “The situation is unpredictable,” retired four-star general Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira, Brazil’s minister of institutional security, told reporters in Brasilia Tuesday. “What we know for sure is that Guaido’s military operation was precarious while the other side has bought the support of around two thousand generals, which is a frightening number.” Heleno said Brazil supported Guaido but would not intervene.

Hawkish bluster from the U.S. won’t help. Republican Senator Marco Rubio live-tweeted the uprising throughout the day, hyping the rebellion and the danger to Maduro’s hold on power. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo crowed that if not for Maduro’s Russian minders, he would have been on a plane to Havana. Despite dispatching dozens of advisers and 35 tons of equipment to Venezuela last month, Moscow denied any role in yesterday’s confrontation. The Trump administration is now threatening a total economic embargo of Cuba, Maduro’s even more stalwart ally, even as reports swirl of mercenary forces readying for intervention in Venezuela.

Using Venezuela as a proxy for geopolitical quarrels won’t advance the cause of democracy. Venezuela’s embattled opposition needs concerted international pressure, not cheerleading.

No one can fault Guaido’s chutzpah — a “gigantic surplus of courage,” as Harvard University economist and Guaido adviser Ricardo Hausmann put it. Yet such bravado is not without risk. Consider Guaido’s gambit in February to weaponize humanitarian aid by dispatching tons of food and medicine from Brazil and Colombia into Venezuela. That failed effort was at best a Pyrrhic victory, putting demonstrators in harm’s way even as it exposed Maduro’s willingness to resort to violent repression.

The same gambler’s pluck fueled the April 30 uprising. This time, however, Guaido’s wager may have just barely paid off. The rebel eruption has put the Venezuelan government on the defensive: Either Maduro arrests Guaido and risks an international backlash or does nothing, and looks weak.

Although his ties with the military held, Maduro’s grip on the country looks more tenuous by the day. Consider yesterday’s open letter by the head of Venezuela’s feared intelligence secretariat, Sebin, admonishing Maduro to “rebuild the country.” “The time has come to seek a new way of doing politics,” Venezuelan spymaster Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera wrote.

Venezuela’s neighbors can help the country’s democratic forces create that new way, but only if they sustain the historic diplomatic unity they’ve galvanized under the Lima Group while steering away from risky new adventures — including by Guaido himself. Keep your eye on Peru, where the Lima Group will reconvene on May 3, and also on the Venezuelan streets.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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