Life is full of surprises. The president of the Venezuela National Assembly (now interim of the Republic), Juan Guaidó took everyone by surprise. Not only did he swear himself president following the Bolivariana Constitution (that of Hugo Chávez himself) but he extended his open hand to the collaborators and the military of the Madurista regime: he promised them amnesty as a way to gain the confidence of the regime’s collaborators. At the same time, he promoted open town councils, cabildos abiertos, to which Maduro, surprised and cornered by this political maneuvering, responded as always: threats against the personal security of the interim president Guaidó, repression and death of hundreds of citizens, and accusations of interventionism against the international community, especially the “empire” led by Donald Trump.

This series of events shows that in the struggle against authoritarianism, the narrative changed. I mean not only in the case of Venezuela but also in Latin America and the political process of the world community. Despite international tensions and conflicts, any current government cannot directly invoke the legitimacy of its actions by appealing to the people (rejecting any “interference”): it must also be subject to the rule of law and international recognition. A democracy involves not only having elections and Maduro has boasted of having “many” of them, as Stroessner, Trujillo, and many other Latin American dictators had done before, but the transparency and legality of the process of those elections is what counts. In an oppressive regime people vote (if they do) but they do not choose. That’s a masquerade of democracy. Let’s examine this in more detail.

The constitutional background

Juan Guaidó was elected, first of all, according to Article 233 of the Venezuela Constitution, which alludes to the “absence” of the president. But, one may ask, was not Nicolas Maduro the president? The answer, any more, is no. Maduro’s six-year term ended – his first term —this past January 10. He had been president since January 10, 2013. He claims that he was reelected in May 2018, but that election was declared illegitimate by most observers and protagonists. It was, looked from different angles, a sham. First, the lack of transparency and the illegality of that election were challenged by a broad spectrum of political parties gathered under the name of the Table of Democratic Unity and Broad Front. Second, that election was illegal. It was called by the Constituent Assembly, an institution invented by Maduro; instead, it should have been called by the legitimate National Assembly, elected by the people. Finally, even the “loyal” opposition who competed with Maduro, then, did not recognize the results of the election. It was, they protested, plagued by intimidation, and fraud.
Likewise, the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), the United States, Canada, the United Nations high commissioner, the Latin American countries gathered at the Lima Group, and a long list of others also did not recognize it. Only dictatorships such as China, Russia, Iran or Cuba supported the regime. Hence, because of the “absolute lack of elected president,” (Article 233), the congressman Juan Guaidó assumed, ad interim, the presidency with the commitment, within thirty days, of convening free elections.

Does this legal route make Guaidó a self-proclaimed dictator? In no way. His oath, according to a strict constitutional provision, was made in front of an open town hall, – cabildos abiertos, – as well as the parliament, the National Assembly, which is the legitimate body elected by the people. It was a personal oath according to law. It was president Maduro, on the other hand, who took an illegal oath on January 10. Alleging he won the 2018 election, he went in front of the Supreme Court (controlled by him) and not, as he should, in front of the National Assembly. He is no longer the constitutionally elected president of Venezuela. Maduro became the “usurper,” as Guaidó called him, and began pushing and hastening his fall, inviting the military to join him.

The intervention of the “Empire”

The recognition of Guaidó as president was immediate from the Organization of American States to the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the majority of Latin American countries. The European Community will be doing so his weekend.  Again, dictatorships and oppressive governments, from Iran to Turkey and from Russia to China, were the ones supporting former president Maduro. It is clear that both Putin’s and Xi Jinping’s governments are not willing to quit doing business with the regime. They have been receiving crude oil as a form of payment. Maduro owes them too much money.
Has that been an intervention orchestrated by the so called “empire” ( i.e., the United States). Not quite. It is not a “standard” intervention. Times, as I said earlier, are different. Yet, this time, the United States has captured the opportunity to support, a movement for a more open society. The Trump administration, along with a number of international actors, from OEAS to the Lima Group, has insisted that Maduro is no longer the president of Venezuela. His recent oath of office is illegitimate because it was based on the rigged election of last year.

Some voices in the United States have been expressing concern for the Trump administration to intervene.—and even calling for the condemnation of Juan Guaidó’s move. I believe this petition is disgraceful. They demand more restraint, realism in foreign policy. I am sympathetic with this view but with a qualified sympathy. Guaidó is not a dictator, Maduro is. Very often in the past, interventions have sided with strong men and dictators. Such is not the case this time, and this is, I insist, not a direct intervention—at least not yet. The declarations of both National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have supported free elections and the return of political liberties to Venezuela. Vice President Mike Pence has promised that the United States would lend “unwavering support to the people of Venezuela” in a “call for freedom.”

This is not a “manufactured” crisis meant to install a dictator. It is, rather, a crisis born of the Venezuelan people, who are tired of arbitrariness. Besides, Maduro’s claim that the U.S. and foreign powers are attacking and violating Venezuela’s “sovereignty” is merely ideological rhetoric. He suffers from a totalitarian virus that infected some populist voices, from the left and right, whose notion of sovereignty is identified with the State, the political community and the nation as a supreme and transcendent power. That sovereignty, so the argument goes, is absolute.

This view is quasi totalitarian. The State is only an instrument of the political community (or the nation), which is, yes, autonomous, but with relative autonomy within a global human rights framework. To speak of sovereignty as a carte blanche right to continue abusing human dignity demonstrates the totalitarian character of the regime. Does that view make it harder to push any change to a more open, liberal system? Certainly, as the recent history of Venezuela has shown. If that is the case, I do believe that any political pressure and economic sanctions are legitimate. Does this situation, one can ask further, justify the use of military intervention? Perhaps. That was the case of Paraguay in 1989, when the military rebelled against a criminal dictatorship on behalf of human rights and democracy. Does that mean the need to resort to foreign military intervention? Not necessarily. That move would, in this case, be counterproductive. The end game of that action will be difficult to predict. Bloodshed may be the unwanted result.

The Vatican: the policy of lukewarmness

This potential reality was expressed by Pope Francis during his recent trip to Panama. You could not disagree with that. We should remember, however, that blood, sweat and tears have already been shed: young people were killed (and continue to be), and torture has been used as a method of intimation and fear. It is not surprising, then, that more than three million Venezuelans fled the country and are wandering in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina, begging for help.
Yet, the reaction of the Vatican to the Venezuelan situation is ambiguous. It did send an envoy to the illegitimate oath of Maduro on January 10. It was to promote, the Vatican said, the common good. Not only was that statement surprising, but it perplexed many people looking for a clear and firm position in defense of human rights. I believe that diplomatic relations do not prevent seriousness in the commitment to human rights. This current policy is mild at best. We are quite far from the firm stance that Karol Wojtyla, the polish pope, once held against the martial law of Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime and the Vatican’s support for Lech Walesa in the 1980s.

The end is near

The situation of Venezuela, where hundreds of citizens are marching every day in the streets in an effort to hasten the departure of Maduro, is at a crossroads: to recover its once model democracy, and, at the same time, avoid a confrontation. Light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. I hope it is the light of freedom and the republican tradition. That, too, has been the desire invoked by Guaidó in his acceptance speech, the hope that Article 350 of the Constitution will prevail against “any regime, legislation or authority which is against values, principles.” Life, as I said at the beginning, is changing for the better, and may surprise us.

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