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Opinion: Venezuela at a crossroads

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Uta Thofern
January 24, 2019

With broad international support, opposition leader Juan Guaido, has declared himself president. How this risky undertaking will end is completely unknown, writes DW's Uta Thofern.

Venezuelans hold a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government
Image: Reuters/

In the world's poorest rich country, anything is now possible. A second fall of the Berlin Wall. Another "Arab spring" with all the familiar consequences. A bloodbath. Or the audacious young speaker of parliament Juan Guaido's arrest, an end to the demonstrations and a relapse into the distressing resignation of recent months.

Juan Guaido managed to shift the mood in Venezuela within only a few weeks, which hardly anyone had expected. He managed to give new weight to the freely elected parliament, which had been sidelined by the Chavez regime, and he managed to unite the fragmented opposition behind him. And he went to traditionally Chavist slum areas and found support there too. Guaido, who, as a student leader, had already sought dialogue with his political opponent's supporters, seemed to be the right man to bring about change. And, according to the constitution, he is at least temporarily the legitimate head of state of Venezuela. This is because President Maduro, who until the beginning of January had been legally in office, owes his recently begun second term to a sham election that goes against all democratic principles.

Read more: Mexicans battling fuel shortage afraid to 'end like Venezuela'

Is US support helpful?

Uta Thofern
Uta Thofern heads DW's Latin America department

Nevertheless, the step he has taken in publicly declaring himself president is more than reckless. The demonstrative support from the US, in particular, is a double-edged sword. The US undoubtedly wields tremendous weight in Latin America, but the history of its intervention policy casts long shadows. Any support it offers provides new arguments for the Chavist hardliners around Maduro and feeds the narrative that Venezuela's misery is only due to a US-led "economic war." The fact that Guaido clearly coordinated his initiative with the US government — only minutes later US President Trump tweeted his recognition — does not make the situation any more straightforward.

Although Guiado was officially recognized as president almost as quickly by the majority of Latin American states, Canada and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, one heavyweight is missing: Mexico. New left-wing populist President Lopez Obrador continues to accept only Maduro as head of state. The European Union is acting cautiously, as the demand for free elections and parliament's clear support does not yet mean Guaido's official recognition.

But it is the support of Russia and China that will be decisive for the Chavist regime's survival. For both, Venezuela is a strategically important toehold for extending their geopolitical power on the South American continent. Both have been financing the state apparatus in Caracas with generous loans for years, and a large part of Venezuela's gigantic oil reserves have already been hocked. Only recently, Russia carried out military exercises in Venezuela and flew in fighter jets.

Read more: Nicolas Maduro and Vladimir Putin: United by oil, isolation

The security apparatus will be decisive

Should US foreign policy be able to command more than loud saber rattling and have also discreetly reached an agreement with China, or at least attempt to do so now, there will be hope for a peaceful resolution in Venezuela. But the likelihood of this happening is small.

In the coming hours and days, everything will depend on the reaction of the notorious "colectivos" (armed Chavist militants), and the secret service. The military's attitude is unclear. Defense Minister Padrino has not appeared in public and simply tweeted that the soldiers would not support a self-proclaimed president but would defend Venezuela's constitution and sovereignty. This was not a declaration of support for Maduro.

In Venezuela, anything is now possible.

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Uta Thofern Head of DW's Latin America departments with a focus on democracy, rule of law and human rights