Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and his Russian ally Vladimir Putin are predictably claiming that the swearing-in of Juan Güaidó as acting president is a coup organised by Donald Trump. Those of us who want a democratic – and as peaceful as possible – end to Maduro’s dictatorship must ignore the anti-American rhetoric and throw our full support behind the president of the country’s national assembly.
Guaidó must not be allowed to fail. No one within the opposition is better suited to steer Venezuela back towards democracy. Following years of seeing former president Hugo Chávez abuse the rules of democracy, an increasing number of Venezuelans has lost faith in politics and the power of the vote. They are understandably angry, and they seem to believe that the only way out is to take the fight to the streets. Guaidó, who cut his teeth in the 2007 protests against Chávez, has enough credibility to convince this group that a democratic transition is still possible.
After his experience leading protests, Guaidó got into politics and ran in the 2010 and 2015 elections. Maduro and Putin can scream foul all they want, but article 233 of the constitution states that if there is no president to be sworn in at the beginning of the term, the head of the national assembly will be acting president while elections are organised. This, right here, is the democratic transition the international community had been waiting for.
Guaidó is 100% working class. He grew up and still lives in Vargas, one of the most impoverished states. He worked as a computer salesman to pay his university fees. Unlike other opposition leaders, he is not a member of the upper middle class venturing into the slums to gain popular support. That gives him a huge credibility with former Chávez supporters.
But he also has his youth on his side. Guaidó was 15 when Chávez was first elected president. His political party, Voluntad Popular, was created in 2009 by Leopoldo López, one of the founders of Primero Justicia – which was itself established in 2000. Guaidó’s fight is about rebuilding Venezuela, not about giving back power to the politicians who ruled the country between 1958 and 1998.
Yet, he is not out for revenge. The acting president has pushed an amnesty law that will allow military and police to avoid prosecution for human rights violations. He has even suggested that Maduro and other civilians might benefit from it. He knows that proposal is very unpopular among his own supporters, but he understands, based on the experience of countries like Chile and Guatemala, that amnesty is crucial for a country to move on.
Is Guaidó perfect? Most certainly not. But he is the only person who can legally replace Maduro, and there is no doubt the dictator needs to go. The Venezuelan regime is starving its citizens; it stands accused by the UN human rights commissioner of systematically murdering and torturing protesters, and it has triggered the biggest refugee crisis in the history of the Americas. Will the transition be peaceful? Unfortunately, that seems unlikely. Maduro has vowed to fight to the death, the high command of the armed forces continues to be loyal to him and, according to recent polls, a little under 20% of Venezuelans still claim to support him.
The worry is it could lead to some sort of American invasion. The US might respond if Maduro’s forces attack Guaidó – and according to a survey cited by the Financial Times, a third of Venezuelans support external military intervention. I do not endorse that. In 2005, working as a reporter for Venezuelan daily El Nacional, I covered the war in Afghanistan, and I got to see first-hand how “effective” the Americans can be at destroying a country and slaughtering civilians. I do not wish that for Venezuela.
Of course, some think this is a coup organised by Donald Trump. That it’s all about oil. It’s impossible to know for sure, though the dissatisfaction on the streets of Venezuela is clearly very real and justified. There are probably some very excited oil executives somewhere fantasising about getting their hands on the largest crude reserves in the world. It will be up to the Venezuelans to stop them. But as things stand, those reserves are right now in the hands of Russia, China and Cuba, and those shouting about Venezuela’s sovereignty don’t seem to mind that at all.
The only way to prevent the Americans, who do have a terrible history of interventionism in Latin America, from taking control of the transition is for other countries to get – and remain – involved. Some EU members, including the UK, have signalled that they are willing to back Guaidó. That support needs to be formalised and there needs to be so many people at the table, including Latin America’s democratic countries, that any negative US influence is diluted.
Reynaldo Trombetta is a Venezuelan journalist. Before moving to England in 2008, he reported on politics, repression and protests in Venezuela.