On Tuesday, Venezuela’s opposition kicked off what it hoped would be the final phase of Operation Libertad, opposition leader Juan Guaido’s name for the multi-phased effort to remove President Nicolas Maduro from power. Whether or not it succeeds will depend on the opposition’s ability to win over enough of the armed forces. There are signs that members of the military are publicly supporting Guaido, but it hasn’t yet reached a critical mass.
Today’s events are unfolding a quickly, so it’s worth taking stock of where things currently stand.
Beginning with Guaido’s speech from the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Air Base, the opposition has urged mass mobilizations on the streets where it can flaunt its military backing and call for more troops to join its ranks. In addition, prominent opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez made his first public appearance in years, praising the military for releasing him from house arrest (though some in the media have speculated that the military was paid off). The public is no stranger to protest at this point, and between word of the opposition’s call to action quickly spreading on social media and the fact that many Venezuelans were already prepared to join protests on May 1, crowds rapidly grew throughout the country, including in Caracas, Maracay, Barinas and Maracaibo, often clashing with security forces.
The most conspicuous part of today’s news was that a dozen or so members of the military accompanied Guaido during his speeches and marches throughout the day. In the early morning, there were small skirmishes between these and pro-government forces, the latter of which eventually drew back and erected blockades to contain the protests.
The Venezuelan military immediately responded by taking to social media, assuring the public that it had control of the marches and of its own troops. Various units and military personnel pledged on Twitter their fealty to the Maduro government – including, notably, Gen. Jose Adelino Ornelas Ferreira, who had been rumored to have joined the opposition. Later in the day, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez delivered a national address, declaring the military’s intention to defend the government, country and constitution and reassuring the public that the vast majority of the military remains steadfastly behind Maduro. The head of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, called for supporters to gather at the presidential palace. The military, joined by paramilitary groups and colectivos, is patrolling the streets in an effort to quell protests.
Some developments suggested that the government did, at the very least, feel threatened by the day’s events. The government closed its airspace until further notice. The National Commission of Telecommunications interrupted transmission of radio station RCR750 (though the government has been cracking down on the press for months now). And there were also rumors that Maduro, who has not appeared in public today, was holed up in his palace preparing to negotiate some type of deal for new elections. (That would comport with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s April 29 comments, in which he said that Maduro’s inner circle is looking for an exit strategy.)
The International Response
The United States, as has been its custom, issued verbal support for the opposition accompanied by little action. President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton and at least two senators expressed their support for the Guaido-led uprising, exhorting the Venezuelan people and military to support the action. U.S. Southern Command said it was closely following events but noted its mission had not changed. The representative of Guaido’s government in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, stressed at a press conference the importance of the marches, saying this was a Venezuelan-driven process and calling for the people and armed forces to participate. The governments of several other South American countries – including Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia – have reiterated their support for Guaido while others – Bolivia and Cuba – have criticized the moves. Mexico renewed its calls for the two sides to reach a peaceful resolution through dialogue.
Hours have passed since this morning’s initial events and, for now, the military remains in control. While the opposition is presenting this as the beginning of the final push to depose Maduro, it’s also acknowledging that it needs more military participation to succeed. If it can’t show its best attempt to finally remove Maduro from power, it will lose momentum. the next 48 hours will be critical if the opposition’s putsch attempt is to succeed.