Why you should care
Because revolutions are never simple.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? Rumors, defections, deadly violence and one failed “coup” attempt. In the last few days, Venezuela has found itself mired even deeper in crisis. After a call to rebellion this week by U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó led to more violence and deeper entrenchment on both sides, the U.S. and Russia — President Nicolás Maduro’s chief foreign backer — are watching the chaos more closely than ever. But paying even closer attention are Venezuela’s elites: It’s the sympathies of military leaders and top bureaucrats that Guaidó is fighting to attract, and whose support will ultimately make or break his fledgling movement.
Why does it matter? Experts say this week’s events reveal that neither side is dominant in this international tussle over Venezuela’s future. Guaidó’s got backing from Washington, much of Europe and many of his Latin American neighbors. Maduro, meanwhile, appears to still control the all-important security apparatus. But neither side should rest easy. A sensational claim this week by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton that Maduro’s top allies had plotted against him will only stir further intrigue over what’s really happening behind the scenes. And Guaidó, easily painted by government supporters as a Western lackey, has yet to prove he can wield enough people power to frighten elites into finally ditching Maduro. The only certainty? This crisis will only deepen before the chaos-riddled country sees any resolution.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
A failed gamble. Guaidó appeared to suffer a serious setback Tuesday, when members of the military refused to heed his call outside an air base in Caracas to abandon the government en masse. Instead, they fired tear gas at protesters and the few rank-and-file soldiers who defected, sparking clashes that ultimately left four dead and dozens more injured. Rumors had been swirling that military support for Maduro was waning — until, that is, the embattled president appeared on television, surrounded by loyalists in uniform, denouncing what they called an attempted coup. Now, analysts are wondering whether Guaidó has exhausted his options to further galvanize his popular movement. “You only get to play this card once,” Fernando Cutz, the former Venezuela policy chief at the U.S. National Security Council, told the Associated Press.
Shadow war. Central to the chaos were claims by Bolton that three key members of the regime — Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno and Iván Rafael Hernández, commander of Maduro’s presidential guard — had promised to back Guaidó. Padrino and other top figures doubled down on their support, and the fact that Bolton spoke out appeared to be a tacit acknowledgement that whatever plan the opposition allegedly cobbled together had failed. A Spanish newspaper, meanwhile, reported that Guaidó and his mentor, former political prisoner Leopoldo López, acted too quickly because they believed that they’d been sniffed out by Maduro’s spies. Ex-intelligence chief General Manuel Christopher Figuera, the only regime insider to publicly denounce Maduro’s government, seemed to confirm Bolton’s claims by writing to the president that “many people you trust are negotiating behind your back.”
Playing carefully. If Maduro’s military allies are “like chess pieces,” as Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S. describes them, they’re still very much in play. But a key question is how Bolton’s public commentary could affect decision making by other potential defectors. After witnessing how a top U.S. official outed alleged conspirators, it’s unclear how motivated they’d be to leave Maduro’s side. For whoever does decide to defect, it’s equally unclear what awaits them on the other side: Many of these regime allies, who’ve allegedly enriched themselves through drug trafficking and other illicit activities, aren’t necessarily buying the opposition’s promises of amnesty if they turn on Maduro. For his part, the embattled president is playing it safe by not arresting Guaidó, a move some suggest is aimed at staving off further Western punishment, as well as the risk of empowering the young leader’s supporters. Casting his chief opponent as a capitalist puppet is far more effective.
Patience is a virtue. While Guaidó and his supporters have shown gumption with their high-profile attempts to pressure the regime — don’t forget the February plans to deliver humanitarian aid — some experts are wondering whether Washington has what it takes to stand by his side in the long term. Sure, the U.S. has slapped oil sanctions on Caracas in a bid to cut crucial revenue streams and force Maduro’s hand, and Washington refuses to rule out military intervention. But the problem, writes one Miami-based journalist, is that D.C. policymakers see Guaidó’s revolution “as a swashbuckling, one-fell-swoop act of Monroe Doctrine heroism,” and not a slow, steady game that requires careful exploitation of smaller cracks in the system. Still despite the saber-rattling, most experts agree Washington isn’t prepared to bog itself down in what would promise to be another costly foreign military intervention.
WHAT TO READ
Venezuela Is Armed to the Hilt, by Ryan C. Berg and Andrés Martínez Fernández in Foreign Policy
“With Maduro’s control still unsteady, it is easy to see a future in which corrupt narcogenerals seek to sell off significant portions of their armories for a quick profit before fleeing a collapsing government.”
Threats and Blocked Speeches: The Life of a Venezuelan Opposition Figure, by Kejal Vyas in The Wall Street Journal
“His life now revolves around meetings with aides, telephone calls with supporters and diplomats abroad and trying to stay one step ahead of Mr. Maduro’s intelligence services.”
WHAT TO WATCH
What to Know About the Attempted Coup in Venezuela
“Venezuela is once again at a crossroads… What seems less likely than ever is a peaceful transition of power.”
Watch on Vice on YouTube:
Juan Guaidó Gives First TV Interview Since Venezuela’s Uprising
“There is no doubt that there is no value more sacred than freedom.”
Watch on Fox Business on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Fruits of freedom. With much of Venezuela languishing in crushing poverty — almost 90 percent of its citizens are too poor to buy the food they need — mangoes are emerging as an unlikely savior. Growing in abundance, they provide plenty of vitamin C and fiber, even if they don’t have nearly enough protein for a day’s intake. Dubbed by some as “noise takers,” because they soothe stomach rumbling, these colorful fruits offer a rare semblance of stability in an otherwise chaotic country.