It was a ploy that from its outset felt like a long shot. Before dawn Tuesday, Juan Guaidó, flanked by his political mentor Leopoldo López and a handful of soldiers who had broken ranks, issued a message to Venezuela and the world: The time to topple Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime was right now.
By Wednesday morning, with Maduro still firmly in control of the military command, López had sought refuge at the Spanish Embassy and the streets of the capital were quiet, long empty of of the protesters who had heeded Guaidó’s call to join what he called "Operation Liberty."
While the situation remains fluid enough that a quick turnaround can’t be ruled out in coming days, Tuesday marked the biggest setback yet for Guaidó and his three-month-old push to oust Maduro. And it raised crucial questions: Will Maduro use this moment to carry out his longstanding threat to jail Guaidó once and for all? If that happens, how will the United States, the de facto leader of an international coalition backing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, respond?
The whole episode was so bizarre – with Guaidó seemingly lacking the military might to have any chance at all – that it was hard to understand the day’s events. One explanation, as related by National Security Adviser John Bolton, was that a deal had been struck behind the scenes and that key members of Maduro’s regime had agreed to flip, paving the way for Guaidó to easily assume power.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on CNN that Maduro had in fact been heading to Havana Tuesday, when his allies in the Russian government talked him out of leaving. Russia’s government denied that Wednesday, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova telling CNN the US was using “fakes as a part of an information war.”
Bolton called out Venezuela’s defence minister and chief justice on Twitter, saying this was their last chance to accept Guaidó and escape sanctions or “go down with the ship.” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has played a key role in shaping US policy on Venezuela, tweeted that high-ranking Venezuelan officials who publicly support Maduro had “been working to get him out” and that their double cross would soon be exposed.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López, one of those officials, took to the airwaves to declare the people involved in the attempted takeover “ridiculous,” calling what had happened “a mediocre coup.”
Bolton insisted that it wasn’t a coup d’ètat because Maduro had stolen last year’s election; Guaidó, as the head of the national assembly, is the constitutionally mandated interim president. He said “Cuban thugs” were threatening members of the Venezuelan military who might otherwise defect. US President Donald Trump threatened a “full and complete” embargo of Cuba.
Tuesday’s events – coming a day before planned nationwide anti-government demonstrations – began with the escape of López, a former mayor of a Caracas district who in 2015 was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison on charges including inciting violence. He was released to house arrest in July 2017 under orders to keep quiet, and his sudden appearance with Guaidó was a dramatic turn.
The sun was coming up as Guaidó announced the “final phase” of the effort to end Maduro’s disastrous rule, which has driven the once-wealthy oil power into chaos and near starvation.
“This is the morning for all us to go out to the streets, civilians and soldiers,” López said as he stood with Guaidó near a military airbase in eastern Caracas. He said he had been freed by his captors. “Today, we are convinced this process is irreversible.”
For more than 10 hours, Caracas and dozens of other cities rang with the boom of tear gas as government troops quelled protests. National police and guardsmen using armoured vehicles blocked main arteries and turned back crowds. Supporters of Maduro asked for residents to rally outside Miraflores, the presidential palace, in a show of strength, and hundreds did.
“The opposition called for a civic-military uprising but failed on both ends. Parties didn’t manage to rally and coordinate enough protesters nor did they convince a significant enough factions of the military to break ranks,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas. “Everything was hurried.”
There was throughout the day a chimerical quality to the opposition endeavour, not unlike Guaidó’s January announcement that he was taking the reins of government. He has named ambassadors and officials and been recognised by more than 50 nations. Without the power of the military, his presidency has been an act purely of symbolism.
There’s no doubt that across the country, and within its governing bureaucracy, there is profound discontent with Maduro and broad support for a transition. Guaidó and his advisers believed that by declaring an uprising they might actually be able to create one.
For a while, it seemed possible. As protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, dozens of exiled military officers stood at the ready in the Colombian border city of Cucuta. But they didn’t cross the bridge into Venezuela, ordered back to their hotels by Guaidó’s local representatives, according to Jose Nieto, a former sergeant major in the National Guard.
In the afternoon, López, along with his wife and one of their daughters, entered the Chilean ambassadorial residence, according to that country’s foreign minister, Roberto Ampuero. López later left the residence and went to the Spanish Embassy, the Chilean government said.
At the US State Department in Washington, Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy for Venezuela, said he wouldn’t “make predictions about what’s going to happen right now or tomorrow or the day after.” Guaidó’s 'Operation Liberty,' he added, “was not done out of the blue. It was done as part of a long process of trying to restore the Constitution.”
On state television Tuesday night, Maduro threatened to act against the people “encouraging the coup d’état,” as he put it. “They can’t go unpunished.” He said national prosecutors were investigating “all those involved.”