The political order of Venezuela descended further into chaos on Wednesday, January 23, when Juan Guaido declared himself the interim president of the country. He made the announcement at a political protest in Caracas, the nation’s capital, where Guaido took the oath of office before a crowd of other protesters. He is currently the majority leader of the National Assembly, one of two competing legislatures in Venezuela; the other is Maduro’s pro-government Constituent Assembly. Each considers the other illegitimate.
The development comes as Venezuela has been rocked by years of political instability and economic woes. The inflation rate alone reached over 800,000% in 2018. Food shortages and hunger are rampant. Dragged down by falling oil prices, the country’s economy shed over a third of its value between 2013 and 2018. In response, protests have rocked Maduro’s presidency since 2014. Despite widespread dissatisfaction with his regime, he was reelected in 2018 in an election that has been broadly denounced as being unfair and undemocratic.
Guaido’s announcement marks the first time that a single opposition figure has attempted to seize the office. It has also fostered increased international interest in the situation in Venezuela with major countries feeling forced to pick a side. Guiado has garnered the support of most countries in the Americas as well as the Organization of American States. Following an ignored EU ultimatum to Maduro demanding immediate elections, several European states have also recognized Guiado including the U.K., France, and Germany. On the other side, Maduro has received the continued recognition of Russia, China, Mexico, and several others.
The United States was quick to declare its support of Guiado, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on countries to follow suit at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Saturday. Trump’s administration has also indicated that it is willing to use economic and diplomatic force to support Guaido’s claim to the presidency. This support began to manifest on Monday with sanctions on Venezuela’s state owned oil company, PdVSA. The administration also moved to have Guaido recognized as the legitimate controller of Venezuelan assets in the U.S. There has also been reports that the White House is discussing the use of military force in the situation — though no official statement has been made on it.
It should come as no surprise that the prospect of American military force in Latin America has met opposition at home and abroad. American-backed coups during the Cold War were responsible for the collapse of democracy in Chile, Brazil, Guatemala, and Bolivia. American anti-communist intervention more broadly was also responsible for destabilizing many other Latin American states. Given this history, the Trump administration should make it clear that military force is not on the table in Venezuela. Not only would it tarnish the reputation of the United States, it would cast doubt over the legitimacy of Guaido if he were to take power.
Nevertheless, Guaido’s challenge is a beacon of hope for democracy in authoritarian Venezuela. The United States should capitalize on this opportunity to not only promote democracy in Venezuela but also to redefine American leadership in the Western Hemisphere. So far, the Trump administration has pledged $20 million to Guaido’s government as humanitarian aid. This approach needs to be coordinated with the OAS to empower it as a pro-democratic institution beyond just a forum for its members. If other Latin American countries were to pledge even symbolic amounts of humanitarian aid in conjunction with the United States, this would serve to remove the specter of American imperialism and show this for what it really is: a broadly supported democratic transition.
For both the Trump administration and for Democrats — who lack a consistent voice on the issue — it is important to maintain this distinction between economic and diplomatic pressure and military intervention. Without the former, the United States becomes a bystander to the death of democracy in Venezuela. The latter would make us complicit in the murder.