Guaidó says Venezuelan opposition overestimated military support before failed uprising
By ANTHONY FAIOLA | The Washington Post | Published: May 4, 2019
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Saturday acknowledged errors made in attempting to stir a military uprising, and he did not discard a U.S. military option in Venezuela alongside domestic forces — saying he would take any such offer from Washington to a vote in the country's National Assembly.
After a dramatic week that saw a clandestine plan to oust President Nicolás Maduro fall apart on Tuesday, Guaidó conceded that the opposition had miscalculated its support within the military.
In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, Guaidó suggested that he expected Maduro to step down amid a groundswell of defectors within the military. Instead, Guaidó's call for the rank and file and senior brass to abandon Maduro did not produce mass defections. Maduro's security forces then quelled street protests and left Guaidó's U.S.-backed opposition on its heels.
"Maybe because we still need more soldiers, and maybe we need more officials of the regime to be willing to support it, to back the constitution," Guaidó said. "I think the variables are obvious at this point."
Guaidó — the head of the National Assembly who in January declared Maduro a usurper and claimed the legitimate mantle of national leadership — did not back unilateral U.S. military intervention. He made clear that any American military support must be alongside Venezuelan forces who have turned against Maduro, but gave no further specifics on what would be acceptable.
The Trump administration has said all options are on the table, and its hawks have pressed the Pentagon for possible military involvement. But the administration has not clearly signaled whether it would favor intervention against Maduro.
Asked what he would do if national security adviser John Bolton called him up with an offer of U.S. intervention, Guaidó said he would reply: "Dear friend, ambassador John Bolton, thank you for all the help you have given to the just cause here. Thank you for the option, we will evaluate it, and will probably consider it in parliament to solve this crisis. If it's necessary, maybe we will approve it."
The remarks were among the strongest Guaidó has issued yet on the delicate subject of U.S. military assistance — an option that remains largely unpopular even among Venezuelans opposed to Maduro.
Guaidó said he welcomed recent deliberations on military options in Washington, calling them "great news."
"That's great news to Venezuela because we are evaluating all options. It's good to know that important allies like the U.S. are also evaluating the option. That gives us the possibility that if we need cooperation, we know we can get it."
He added: "I think today there are many Venezuelan soldiers that want to put an end to [leftist guerrillas], and help humanitarian aid get in, who would be happy to receive cooperation to end usurpation. And if that includes the cooperation of honorable countries like the United States, I think that would be an option."
Yet after Tuesday's failed uprising, Guaidó may now be fighting a two-front battle: both to oust Maduro and keep the opposition united.
Guaidó, a 35-year-old industrial engineer and former student leader from Venezuela's Caribbean coast, has ignited new hope in the opposition's ranks since he emerged as the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly — a body stripped of its powers by Maduro in 2017 but widely recognized internationally as the country's only democratic institution.
Guaidó's claim to be Venezuela's rightful interim president has been recognized by more than 50 nations and strongly backed by the Trump administration. Guaidó said he had been in contact with U.S. officials during the week.
Yet the unraveling of a carefully laid plan to oust Maduro, including negotiations with his senior loyalists, has generated rifts within the opposition. Some of its senior leaders have issued recriminations over what went wrong. The sniping risks robbing the opposition of what became its single strongest asset in recent months: unity.
Some frustrated opposition members are blaming Leopoldo Lopez, Guaidó's mentor, who escaped house arrest and appeared with Guaidó on Tuesday morning, for upending the plan.
Lopez was one of the key architects of secret negotiations with government loyalists who were supposed to turn against Maduro on Tuesday. But his triumphant public appearance after escaping a military base, insiders say, was not expected. Some argue that it may have disrupted a carefully laid plan in which some of Maduro's senior loyalists were poised to force him out.
What actually persuaded Maduro's inner circle to close ranks instead remains a mystery. And Guaidó would not discuss the negotiations nor the specifics of the opposition's plan. But the internal sniping poses a new challenge for an opposition that before Guaidó's rise in January was largely seen as ineffectual and divided.
"The event shook Venezuelan politics," said Carlos Romero, a Venezuelan political analyst. "People are confused, wounded, unmotivated."
"I have heard some politicians call it a "Leopoldada," he continued, using a word that in Spanish suggests a maverick act by one person. "And the most affected one is Guaidó, who has been selling himself as a unitary leader. To appear with Leopoldo in a position like that one may have reduced some leaders' trust in him."
Guaidó offered a brief and lukewarm defense of the actions of Lopez, his political mentor.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "I don't have information of that."
Guaidó sought to downplay internal divisions in the opposition, however, saying "there's absolute unity. As always there are some differences in specific things. But I think a single cause unites us, not only as opposition but civil society too."
Asked if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had damaged opposition negotiations by mentioning the names of the alleged conspirators who were willing to turn against Maduro — including his defense minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez — Guaidó said Pompeo had not. Rather, he called Pompeo's move a demonstration of "important support."
The plan moving forward, he said, remains a combination of international pressure, attempts to woo Maduro loyalists, and street action. But Guaidó is confronting the additional challenge of exhaustion and frustration in the Venezuelan street.
Corruption, mismanagement and failed policies have brought Venezuela to its knees, sparking hunger, a mass exodus of migrants and the collapse of the public health system as well as the electricity and water grids In addition, anti-government protesters have confronted violent repression from Maduro's security forces — including four deaths during the past week.
A march on Wednesday — immediately after the failed uprising — drew many thousands. But by Saturday, a march called by Guaidó to military installations largely fizzled, drawing nowhere near the crowds of previous protests.
"We have been doing this for 20 years," Guaidó said, referring to the rise of the leftist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 after naming Maduro as his anointed successor. "Getting frustrated and tired is part of it, but Venezuelans have demonstrated that they always take the fight again when they have to."
He tacitly acknowledged that the plan put in place by the opposition did not work, and said that his camp was seeking to do outreach with Maduro's military and senior civilian backers. But he did not suggest that the opposition was close to another breakthrough.
"Because the fact that we did what we did and it didn't succeed on the first time, doesn't mean it's not valid," he said. "We are confronting a wall that is an absolute dictatorship. . . . We have recognized our mistakes — what we didn't do, and [what] we did too much of."
International calls are rising for the opposition to sit down in official talks with Maduro's camp. But Guaidó reiterated his opposition to talks without the precondition of negotiating Maduro's departure.
"Sitting down with Maduro is not an option," he said. "That happened in 2014, in 2016, in 2017. . . . The end of usurpation is a precondition to any possible dialogue."
Yet if the week's events underscored that the opposition's hand is not yet quite as strong as it hoped, he said it also showed that Maduro is weaker than many had anticipated. He suggested that Maduro's spy chief — who disappeared on Tuesday — had defected, though he would not elaborate. And despite Tuesday's call for a peaceful uprising, Maduro has not ordered Guaidó's arrest.
Because Maduro, he insisted, "is scared."