«¡Juro!» exclaimed Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as he declared himself the country’s acting president on January 23.
«I swear!» he said to the crowd in a definitive challenge to the regime of Nicolás Maduro, the ersatz President who has held office since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013.
I swear, he repeated with a boldness seemingly unrealistic but clearly effective, as it was followed almost immediately by recognition from nearly every country in the region, plus more than a dozen members of the European Union, Canada and the United States.
Of course, this feat of garnering the approval of so many nations would deserve neither admiration nor support were it just another episode in the long tradition of power-grabbing pronunciamentos.
And, certainly, we have seen enough leaders come to power in the rubble of their country (and then confused a spot on a soapbox with constitutional compliance) to blindly credit a man elevated to power with little more mandate than approval from the crowds in Caracas.
Now we must remain alert so that a cult of personality does not develop around the young leader and transform what is now an admirable popular revolution into a new occasion for Petro Caesarism.
Nonetheless, Guaidó agreed to assume executive power in only the most purely formal and legal way.
He acted in accord, not with the maxims of his own ambition, but with a faithful reading of articles 233 and 350 of Venezuela’s constitution, under which the president of the national assembly takes the reins if the head of state is unable to function.
And he assumed executive responsibility solely on an interim basis — that is, for the time it takes to organize free elections and to re-establish the people’s right to make decisions in accordance with the values, principles and guarantees enshrined in the country’s fundamental law.
Few dictatorships have violated those values, principles and guarantees more than Maduro’s.
Few presidents have been so dubiously elected as this blend of Augusto Pinochet and Fidel Castro, that Maduro, in advance of the 2018 election, took the precaution of banning the opposition coalition and ensuring that most of its leading figures, such as Antonio Ledezma and Leopoldo López, were either in jail, in exile or otherwise incapacitated.
Few have relied so heavily as Maduro on shadowy police operations, primly redubbed Operation Humanistic Liberation of the People in 2017. Among those police actions, Amnesty International has found countless cases of arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and bloody violations of human rights.
Moreover, what are those rights worth when, according to the Encovi (a polling firm in Venezuela) study carried out by a consortium of universities, 87% of the country’s households are living below the poverty line? When the average Venezuelan citizen has lost 24 pounds? When health and mortality indicators have reached levels normally observed only in countries at war?
I will not rehash here the eternal debate between legality and legitimacy.
But one has to wonder by what right a regime remains in office when it has been so dishonest, greedy and inept, managing only to foment massive inflation and starve the countryside and the working-class suburbs.
One cannot but wonder what is left of a «Bolivarism» that, with its petrodollars, has succeeded only in building soviets without electricity and creating a people lacking not only freedom but also water, milk, eggs and meat.
And does there not come a point in the marathon of mendacity and mismanagement when one must summon the courage to say that a government that has forced between 2 and 5 million of its people into exile is no longer either legitimate or legal?
Which brings us to a choice.
We can weigh rousing the ghosts of President James Monroe and his 1823 speech, of the United Fruit Company, the Chicago Boys and Operation Condor — these symbols of the so called brutal American interventionist policy during the 1960s and the 1970s, in Chile, Guatemala and other countries of Latin America.
We can, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, express a discomfort at seeing bumbling President Donald Trump return to America’s backyard, where his predecessors so often showed a lack of judgment and morality.
We can, like some leftists followers, claim to see in Guaidó’s oath of office the outcome of a reactionary plot, without considering a few crucial realities: First, that the plotters in this case are millions of ruined, starved and tormented Venezuelans; and, second, that when it comes to interventionism, the most brutal, criminal and imperialistic intervention today is coming not from the United States but from China, which finances the regime, from Russia, which protects it, and from Cuba, which patrols Caracas. But the simple truth is that Venezuela cannot wait any longer for the international community to act.
And that is why the only possible choice, today, for a true liberal, is to echo the call of French President Emmanuel Macron and his European counterparts for free and open elections — preceded, of course, by the immediate and nonnegotiable departure of Maduro.
Remember those pictures of him as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s guest in Turkey in September 2018, enjoying a steak in the world’s priciest meat restaurant?
Without realizing it, he was aping the autumnal patriarch immortalized by yet another writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, feasting in his palace, wild, impulsive and on the edge of madness.
Well, here we are again: The emperor has no clothes. Mired in his hell, he no longer has a future.
What remains to him are his little sword and his pathetic fear of losing the power to torture his people.
And that is why he must go without delay.
Bernard-Henri Levy is a French philosopher, filmmaker and activist. His most recent book is The Empire and the Five kings. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.