It's Working

Rallying international support for recognizing AN Speaker Juan Guaidó as caretaker president was —and remains— an audacious, high-risk gambit. It could still go very wrong. But, right’s working.

Photo: World Politics Review, retrieved. 

Consider two political movements. The first is one of Latin America’s most unsuccessful mass movements. Even though polls show its political adversary is widely loathed, it cannot solidify the trust of the people it seeks to lead. Among foreign diplomats and journalists it has gained a reputation for hopeless incompetence, serial squabbling, glacial decision-making, strategic myopia and near total rudderlessness. Despite decades in the political wilderness, it has failed to cohere around a shared strategy or a cohesive vision. It has little credibility and virtually no political power.

The second is one of the region’s most widely admired and effective mass movements. It has backed its longtime political adversary into a hopeless geostrategic corner, as it rallies its supporters in a carefully calibrated set of street actions thoroughly synced with a global diplomatic push. Actively supported by governments throughout the hemisphere, it has been warmly embraced by nearly every Western Democracy. Gaining a reputation for seizing the strategic initiative, it acts quickly and decisively under the direction of a single, widely respected leader. Offering a clear inclusive vision, it has a strategic plan of action anyone can memorize and is growing rapidly in credibility and political power.

These two political movements are, in fact, the same movement —the Venezuelan opposition— at two different times: the first week of January 2019, and the last week of January 2019. The transformation the opposition has undergone is so radical, so complete, and so total that it is hard to believe it took place in just a few weeks. What happened? How could things turn around so quickly?

If you’d told me a month ago that the opposition would manage to get this much done this quickly, I would’ve laughed at you.

A shocking amount has gone right for the opposition this year. First, in Juan Guaidó, it found a leader to match the moment: a fresh face with a knack for inclusive rhetoric, good political instincts and a kind of quiet charisma that has transfixed long-jaded opositores.

But more fundamentally, it has discovered the magic elixir of leadership — of moving away from making decisions-by-committee and rallying behind a single person with a clear strategic perspective. For years, I’ve been obsessed with the way the opposition’s structure made it impossible for it to lead cohesively, with the way the “umbrella-organization” model of a confederation of independent parties made it plodding and incapable of adapting nimbly to new situations. Guaidó has ended all that, not because he’s a political genius but just because he’s one person. The buck finally stops somewhere.

The opposition also finally found a way to turn the international community’s revulsion with the Maduro regime’s rank authoritarianism to its advantage. Leveraging the vestigial anti-communist instincts in the Republican party, it has enlisted Vicepresident Pence and Senator Marco Rubio in a shockingly bold move to turn standard diplomatic practice on its head and recognize Guaidó as caretaker President even though he doesn’t actually run the country yet. Then, leveraging Julio Borges’s extensive diplomatic network in the region, it has somehow managed to get all but one country in the Lima Group to do the same — and to bring the European Union to the point of issuing an actual ultimatum against the regime.

If you’d told me a month ago that the opposition would manage to get this much done this quickly, I would’ve laughed at you.

The Guaidó Strategy has now begun to go for the jugular — separating the Maduro administration from the revenue flows it needs to fund the dictatorship. With enthusiastic support from the indispensable partner in this venture —the U.S. government— it is now close to bringing a hard-stop to the regime’s petrodollar lifeline. Doing so is likely to make supporting Maduro untenable for the Armed Forces.

The Guaidó Strategy has now begun to go for the jugular.

Chequera mata galán, the old saying says. And Maduro wasn’t that good looking to begin with.

Does this mean we’re out of the woods? That the game is won?

By no means.

There’s a lot that could still go wrong. Even if Maduro is finished —and, amazingly, it really is starting to look like that’s the case— it by no means follows that the military will fall in line behind Guaidó. It’s much more likely they’ll try to install one of their own in Maduro’s place, and then try to negotiate the details of transition. Where that negotiation goes is anyone’s guess. What the FAES, colectivos and other armed groups do in the interim is anybody’s guess.

And we must not be complacent about the dangers still out there. With pressure on the military already extreme and still rising, some very dangerous scenarios cannot be discarded. It’s very easily imaginable that the military could split into different factions that then proceed to shoot it out with one another. Because this is such an extreme scenario we tend to discount it, but as long as we have two presidents openly courting verdeoliva support, we’re going to be one miscalculation away from a historic bloodbath.

Those risks have not gone away. That the Guaidó Strategy has so far worked better than anyone ought to have thought possible doesn’t magically conjure them away. Things could still go spectacularly wrong.

And yet, even as we keep that in mind, there’s no way to ignore the basic fact that…it’s working.