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Venezuela’s Maduro Faces Major Test After US-Backed Coup Attempt

The latest failed coup in Venezuela is part of a series of efforts by successive US administrations.

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro (C) greets his supporters during a gathering against oppositions' rallies in front of the Miraflores Palace in Caracas on January 23, 2019.

The latest US-backed effort at regime change in Latin America took shape Wednesday when a nearly unknown Venezuelan opposition politician named Juan Guaido declared himself the interim president of the country at a rally in the capital city of Caracas.

In quick succession, the United States — along with a number of right-wing governments in the region including Colombia, Brazil and Chile — declared that it would recognize Guaido as president. Meanwhile, global mainstream media coverage depicted the event as the restoration of democracy in the South American country, with outlets making only a passing mention of the large pro-government demonstration that also took place.

Addressing a large crowd of supporters who had gathered at the presidential palace in the Venezuelan capital, President Nicolás Maduro condemned the attempted coup and announced that his government would break diplomatic relations with the United States in response.

According to Jorge Martin, a spokesman for the Hands Off Venezuela campaign based in the United Kingdom, which works to build public support for the political revolution in Venezuela, Wednesday’s coup attempt was but the latest in a long series of efforts by successive US administrations to oust the government in Venezuela.

“This is a long, protracted plan to get rid of a government that is not compliant with the foreign policy of Washington,” Martin told Truthout.

Relations between Venezuela and the United States have been strained since the arrival of Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez, to the presidency in 1999 on a promise to confront the country’s old political class and redistribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to the poor. Chavez’s rise to power marked the beginning of what came to be known as the “pink tide,” in which numerous countries throughout Latin America broke free from the influence of Washington and elected leftist governments that sought to combat inequality, make social investments and address rampant poverty.

Since then, many governments in the region have shifted back toward the right, but Venezuela has remained a thorn in the side of the United States.

According to Martin, there has been no shortage of efforts by the United States and the Venezuelan opposition to oust the government over the years, such as the sabotage of elections, diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions and even a short-lived military coup in 2002 that saw Chavez briefly ousted before mass mobilization saw him returned to power.

However, a protracted economic crisis in Venezuela — spurred on by a drop in the price of oil, the country’s number one export and key source of income — has weakened domestic support for the Maduro government, damaged his image abroad, and has provided Washington and the Venezuelan opposition with an opening to attempt to remove Maduro from power.

The Trump administration in the United States has also been keen to oust Maduro by any means necessary, with Trump openly flirting with the idea of a US-led military intervention in Venezuela.

“What we’re seeing now had been planned, in detail, at the very least since the beginning of this year,” said Martin.

The seeds of the coup attempt were planted earlier this month when the countries that make up the so-called Lima Group refused to recognize Maduro’s second term. The Lima Group is an ad-hoc group of countries formed to facilitate the ouster of Maduro after numerous failed attempts to have the Organization of American States formally condemn the Maduro government.

“It is not by chance that Guaido appointed himself and then immediately the US, Brazil, Colombia and other countries recognized him,” Martin told Truthout. “It is the other way around; they pushed him toward appointing himself as president, all part of a pre-established plan.”

This is a view shared by the Maduro government, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza tweeting on Thursday, “The plan was designed and is being openly executed in Washington, with orders given to its satellite governments and actors in the world.”

Modern Coups, Modern Methods

Following a long history of US-backed coups throughout Latin America, policy makers in Washington have tried to avoid naked power grabs in recent years, opting instead to pursue regime change through more surreptitious methods, such as the ouster of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay through parliamentary maneuvers. At times, however, the US has turned again to old means, such as the 2009 military coup in Honduras that saw democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya whisked away in the middle of the night.

In the current case of Venezuela, the opposition, Washington, and its regional allies attempted to give Guaido’s declaration a veneer of legitimacy by pointing to the Venezuelan constitution.

“There are no grounds whatsoever, constitutional or otherwise, for declaring himself president in charge,” said Martin, who pointed out that Guaido’s “inauguration” took place on the street in the middle of a political rally, and not in the halls of power.

“Nobody voted for Guaido, [his party] was invited to participate in the election process and they did not show up, they did not participate. How is it that they now want to assume power if they did not participate?” Venezuelan Maduro supporter Fredy Jose Peña told teleSUR during a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday.

The Lima Group issued a statement recognizing Guaido as president. Mexico, however, did not sign onto the statement and a spokesperson for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said that Mexico would continue to recognize Maduro as president.

Under the previous administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico had been critical of Maduro, but since the change in government, the country has opted to return to its traditional policy of nonintervention.

Juan Melchor, a member of the national political leadership council of Mexico’s National Coordinator of Education Workers (a union that has forged close ties with the teachers’ unions in Venezuela), said the US-backed coup attempt was “predictable” and welcomed the position taken by the Mexican government.

“This government has reinstated respect and noninterference in the decisions of autonomous countries,” Melchor told Truthout.

Melchor added that he hoped Lopez Obrador’s position could serve as an example to other countries. Indeed, late Wednesday, Mexico issued a joint statement with Uruguay calling for dialogue between the government and the opposition in order to “find a peaceful and democratic solution.”

Other allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, including heavyweights Russia and China, issued strong statements of support.

What Next?

The coup conspirators hoped there would be dissentions in the Venezuelan armed forces, with US officials openly calling for the military to break with Maduro. Shortly after Maduro’s address, however, Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino issued a statement rejecting Guaido’s self-proclamation as president, and there have not been any reports of any rebellions within the armed forces. Thursday morning, high-ranking members of the Venezuelan military reiterated their loyalty to Nicolas Maduro.

Nonetheless, the situation remains volatile. The US has stated that since it does not recognize Maduro as president, it would not acknowledge the break in diplomatic relations and would not withdraw its diplomatic staff from Venezuela, setting the stage for a conflict should Maduro opt to try to remove them.

The United States is likely to ratchet up pressure on the Maduro government, including imposing heavy sanctions on the country’s oil sector that would worsen the country’s economic crisis and increase the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

Venezuela is in uncharted territory with Maduro firmly in control of the state but with Guaido recognized by many countries in the region. Direct foreign intervention — be it from the United States, Brazil or Colombia — is unlikely, as it would have a destabilizing effect throughout the region.

“The removal of the democratically elected government by the intervention of imperialism would provoke massive polarization throughout the continent,” Martin told Truthout.

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