Venezuela: The Hard Part About Overthrowing Maduro

The opposition has so far failed to provoke a military uprising against President Nicolás Maduro, and for now, can only count on an angry but tired population.

A man holding a portrait of Maduro during a rally on May 1
A man holding a portrait of Maduro during a rally on May 1
Omar Lugo


CARACAS — As Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaidó asked supporters on May Day to continue street protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, on Caracas's famed Altamira junction, a resilient group of protesters were throwing rocks and shouting at the soldiers firing tear gas at them from the Francisco de Mirando air base.

Nearby, the parliamentarian Manuela Bolívar tried to persuade them by loudspeaker to abandon this strategy and go listen to Guaidó, about to set out a road map in this "crusade" to remove the authoritarian Maduro from power.

"Keeping the street alive" is now the opposition's chosen method of pushing for free and fair elections in Venezuela. Guaidó"s strategy is three-pronged: international backing and sanctions against regime figures, seeking the Venezuelan military's support to give the opposition physical force and movement, and the support of ordinary Venezuelans on the street. They are after all the ones suffering the biggest peace-time slump in Latin American history, without a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami to blame.

International support is solid from the West and liberal democracies. But aside from verbal threats and diplomatic bravado from the United States, and promises to free billions of dollars in international funds to rebuild the debt-ridden country, it does not seem as if it will suffice to topple Maduro and his Bolivarian government.

Juan Guaidó during a speech in Caracas — Photo: La Nacion/ZUMA

The military support has not materialized so far, even after Guaidó, surrounded by a small number of National Guard troops, urged the military to rise against the government. Ironically the National Guard is the most violent and ruthless of the state's security bodies. No garrison responded to his call nor any general with troops at his command.

A source says that it has become very difficult to conspire in Venezuela, thanks to tight security structures created under Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez, with advice from an expert in suppressing dissent, the then ruler of Cuba Fidel Castro. These make it more likely to be uncovered before a deserting soldier or general could negotiate any amnesty offer or flee abroad with their family into a safe exile.

Military components are for example divided between Operative Zones and Strategic Regions where officials of similar ranks are in similar positions, observing each other's actions. There are more than 22,000 generals in Venezuela, more than all the generals in NATO, according to the U.S. Southern Command. Most are millionaire businessmen with no incentives for leaving Maduro. People in that world know that betrayal will cost you dear and are mindful of reports of particularly brutal tortures inflicted on some 200 military personnel arrested as suspected conspirators.

"We'll get back on our feet, again and again, in spite of its difficulty," Guaidó said on May 1 in an apparent reference to the previous day's failure, adding "I swear we'll succeed. You can be sure of it. As long as we keep up the pressure on the streets, we'll be closer every day" to toppling Maduro.

Guaidó must offer answers to a general public that is tired and desperate.

He announced a strategy of strikes gradually rising to the level of a general strike. But this is another delicate move in a country heaving under a slump that has halved the size of the economy in five years, and may shrink it another 25-30% in 2019, in line with estimates by economists and the IMF.

Retailers, services, manufacturing and the oil industry are working at half their capacity. Public transport and utilities are in a state of collapse, and the minimum monthly wage is equivalent to $7.60. People need multiple informal jobs just to get food on the table, while the state has become the main employer — so shouting for Guaidó and against Maduro could mean helpless people losing the monthly rations basket sold by the country's ruling party, PSUV.

The opposition is striving to maintain its presence on the street and show people it has a plan for removing Maduro and rebuilding the country. But leaders like Guaidó must offer answers to a general public that is tired and desperate. In Altamira, a young man with his face covered asked me for a "biscuit or water, something energizing to keep fighting." He was picking up stones to throw at soldiers acting against a protest that had begun peacefully. "Let's hope there'll be change, but there is no way of knowing," said another hooded youngster with him.

Under the scorching tropical sun, and weeping from rage and the tear gas, a pensioner recalls the days when he earned $800 a month. It was even enough to take his family on holiday. "We still have the strength and will. We want the country back that we had before."

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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