Can the New Interim President Topple the Dictatorship in Venezuela?
by Federico N. Fernández
Venezuela has only two republican vestiges left – the civil society and the National Assembly. On January 23, both of them were in action. The full scale of the consequences of those actions remains to be seen.
Preparations for a day of protests started with a somewhat poetic gesture: people from the city of San Félix set a statue of Hugo Chávez on fire. The problems for Nicolás Maduro, nonetheless, were just starting.
From early hours hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans started demonstrating against his dictatorial regime. Caracas, the capital city of the country, was definitely the epicenter of the protests. But massive demonstrations occurred in all major cities.
At 1:30 pm local time, Juan Guaidó was sworn as interim president of Venezuela by the National Assembly. Mr. Guaidó is the head of what used to be Venezuela’s Parliament until Nicolás Maduro – in a Hitlerian manner – de facto dissolved it. Nevertheless, the National Assembly is the only constitutional power that remains in the country. According to legal scholars and the Supreme Court (in exile), article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution allows the National Assembly to temporarily take the executive power and call elections in no longer than 30 days. At the base of this claim lies the fact that the May 2018 national elections were far from being fair and free. The opposition didn’t take part since there was no guarantee of fairness. Nor did it a staggering 54 per cent of registered voters.
Almost immediately after Mr. Gauidó’s proclamation most countries of the region recognized him as the legitimate leader of the country. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador quickly welcome him.
More importantly, American president Donald Trump also gave his endorsement to the newly appointed leader. “The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime. Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” President Trump tweeted.
The US government’s position contrasts sharply with the position taken by Vladimir Putin. His administration quickly stated support for Mr. Maduro. Andrey Klimov, vice president of the Council of the Federation for International Affairs, said that “Russia has already recognized the legitimate president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, nothing will change in this position.”
Mr. Maduro’s reaction has been twofold. On the one hand, repression against the protesters. On the other, in a bold gesture, Venezuela has severed diplomatic ties with the United States and has given 72 hours to American diplomats to leave the country.
“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end to the usurpation,” claimed Mr. Guaidó during his acceptance speech. But how powerful his presidency will actually be is not yet clear. The socialist regime of Venezuela has shown a clear preference to double down when it feels threatened. Moreover, the tendency so far has been in the direction of a dictatorship. It would not come as a surprise if Mr. Guaidó suffers the same fate as his political mentor – the political prisoner Leopoldo López.
In this sense, the role of the Army and the security forces in general will be decisive. Playing the part of a sock puppet dictator of foreign interests centered in the Venezuelan oil and with the full support of his army, Maduro’s predicament could be short. However, if there’s a division within the armed forces, the situation may very well spiral down to a civil war or a Ceaușescu scenario.
Federico N. Fernández is a Senior Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and President of the Fundación Internacional Bases.
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