The Venezuela Uprising Has Gone from Bang to Whimper
Self-declared President Guaidó's effort to drive Nicolás Maduro from the presidential palace has faltered badly. It may yet regain momentum, but it's not clear how.
CARACAS, Venezuela—I hurried here to witness a coup, threw myself at what I assumed would be the end and beginning of everything, only to find it’s the same old chaos that welcomes me.
Some four days ago, Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López stood outside a Caracas military base, flanked by soldiers who had apparently switched sides, and declared that the last phase of “Operation Freedom” was under way. Guaidó was, as always, eloquent and impeccably dressed, and López was the image of redemption, smiling and fearless despite his years of hardship. The moment had everything one could have wanted—from the smiling faces of the previously so-feared military to the literal rise of a new dawn.
But then there was nothing, yet again.
“I can’t tell you any exact details, but I will say that the move they made was premature, it was never supposed to happen at four in the morning but instead an organized domino effect that started mid-afternoon. But circumstances forced our hand and here we are.”
Ismael García is an exiled parliamentary deputy who left Venezuela nine months ago, escaping arrest by government intelligence after, as he himself describes it, having blown the whistle on the government’s ties to narco-trafficking.
I sat down with him for a quick cup of coffee in Colombia, hoping to get some insight into the coup that never was, but when I ask him if the opposition has failed, his answers are somewhere between noncommittal and vague.
“Of course we will be victorious! I know things, but I can’t tell you more than that.”
I’ve only worked in this country for three months but even I am tired of that phrase, and I push Diputado García on how there could have been an organized plan, put in place months ago, when Leopoldo López is already seeking refuge at the Spanish embassy in Caracas? Either that was the plan all along, or something went terrible wrong, no?
“I’m not there right now so I can’t tell you what goes on minute by minute, but I do know that things have been set in motion that cannot be undone.”
And that is exactly what Leopoldo López said Friday morning when he gave a statement from within the Spanish embassy—that April 30 had set things in motion that couldn’t be stopped. And although he might be right about that, it seems that the last phase of this operation may be the last phase of a movement rather than a government.
“I’m so angry I could cry. Do you have any idea what it meant to all of us to see Leopoldo there, free in the streets? Everyone I know was sure that that was it, the nightmare was over, but we were only allowed to be happy for one single day.”
Rafael works at a hotel where I’m staying for the night. Given that I’m the only guest, Rafael takes his time checking me in and while he does, two other employees join in the conversation.
“I’m beginning to think they’re all corrupt,” says Lena, the younger of the two women, and when I ask her why, she shrugs and tells me that corruption is the only way to get anything in Venezuela and that means that anyone who rises to power must be dirty. It’s a very cynical statement, especially coming from someone in her early twenties, but it seems the situation, and this country, warrants it.
There were many promises made three months ago, when all of this began, and the turning of the military forces was surely one of the biggest.
Guaidó claimed to have a plan, an agreement just waiting to be signed, and April 30 seemed to be proof that he could deliver more than crowds in streets and inspirational speeches. The very reason I am here is that my most cynical Venezuelan friends sent me a text on Tuesday morning, saying, “There’s a coup, it’s actually happening.” The people believed, the supporters felt vindicated, and even the darkest minds began to hope for a brighter tomorrow.
“Look at this place.” Rafael gestures at the empty lobby, “we closed the restaurant, the pool and the bar, most of the staff has been let go. ... It feels like death and now that Guaidó failed, what’s the point, really?"
The consequences of a failed coup go far beyond disappointment, as painful and palpable as it is. Those who put their faith in the opposition’s promises may end up paying a steep price if Guaidó is unable to follow through; we already know that the intelligence chief who defected is hiding out in an undisclosed location after the opposition was unable to guarantee his safety, and that several of the soldiers who stepped across the line at the border during highly publicized demonstrations on February 23 have yet to be accounted for.
Having these very public and high profile examples of his inability to protect those who stepped across the line and stepped up for him will undoubtedly hurt Guaidó in a country where trust is a rare commodity and hope is a childhood disease.
So, given that, why did the opposition choose to make an irreversible move if the framework wasn’t there to support it? Was it, as Diputado Garcia said, a question of hands being forced and plans being executed prematurely, or was this the IKEA of coups—simply built to fail?
Venezuela is three months into an uprising, three months of “soon but not just yet” and it seems as if the failure may not have been acting prematurely but rather having waited too long.
Gone is the element of surprise, the window where the Maduro government was caught off guard and reacted out of survival instinct and desperation to a challenger who seemed to stand for action in a passive state. Three months ago, the world looked at Nicolás Maduro expecting a response and a reaction, but now all the eyes are on Guaidó, demanding the very same things.
They say things have been set in motion that cannot be undone.
I think they might be right.