Analysis. The new leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, declared himself the acting president of Venezuela during street protests Wednesday. The move could mark a turning point in the political and economic crisis.

Venezuelan opposition crowns ‘interim president,’ blessed by Trump

Wednesday was a day of high tension in Caracas. The government and the opposition are again clashing in the streets, in an environment that has become explosive in recent days after a brief rebellion by 40 military officers, followed by two acts of sabotage against the presidency of Nicolas Maduro and by violent demonstrations—guarimbas—that took place on Tuesday night on the northern outskirts of the capital and in some cities, and which—according to the opposition—have left four dead.

The anti-government protest was convened by Juan Guaidó, the newly elected president of the National Assembly (AN), a body controlled by the opposition and which has had its political role suspended for the past two years by the High Court, which yesterday accused the AN of “unconstitutional” actions. Guaidó called on supporters and soldiers to march in a demonstration that seemed openly aimed at toppling the regime: “We have a historic promise to fulfill for our country … soldiers, we have a historic promise to fulfil for the people”—namely, to “conquer Caracas,” he wrote in his call to action on the anniversary of the fall of dictatorship of Marcos Pérez in 1958.

On Wednesday morning, thousands of protesters took to the streets in the capital and other cities, shouting Este gobierno va a caer (“This government will fall”). Supporters of Maduro’s government also gathered in the center of Caracas and throughout the country, while the security forces were deployed and on high alert.

Guaidó has refused to recognize the validity of Maduro’s election to a second presidential term in the Jan. 10 elections, and has formed an alternative government, parallel to the Bolivarian one headed by Maduro, which was immediately recognized by the United States, the Lima group (made up of 12 Latin American countries, with the exception of Mexico, which has distanced itself from the situation), and Canada and Ecuador (where xenophobic demonstrations against Venezuelan immigrants have been taking place over the past few days).

The situation escalated even further when during the demonstration, in an ad-hoc ceremony, Guaidó took the oath to serve as “acting president” of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. From the White House, via Twitter, came the news that President Donald Trump was preparing to recognize him as “interim president,” unconcerned about the risk of triggering a full-scale civil war in the country.

This is the third time in the past two years that the National Assembly is saying they are unwilling to recognize the legality of Maduro’s term in office, and is calling for a mobilization to overthrow the government by force. History is repeating itself yet again—unfortunately, not as a farce, but rather setting the stage for yet another tragedy: the attempted overthrow of the government is taking place in an international context in which the possibility of external military intervention—supposedly for “humanitarian” purposes and in order to “restore democracy”—has been in the air for months now. Another idea that has been floated is that of a coup against Maduro, which would certainly have the support of both the US and the Latin American right-wing governments—again, for purely “humanitarian” reasons.

After Jair Bolsonaro took office in Brazil in January, it was expected that there would be a highly concentrated attack on Bolivarian Venezuela from all directions, as the country is now surrounded from all sides by radical right-wing governments—Brazil and Colombia—and the hostile Guyana.

The former US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, set the stage for this concerted attack during a delicate mission in Latin America in August of last year, with the task of “reconquering” the influence of the United States in the region. Mattis’s strategy was focused on Brazil, laying the ground for the South American giant to reprise its role as sub-imperialist power (according to the famous account by Ruy Mauro Marini—or, in more pragmatic terms, that of a “privileged satellite” of the US, as Henry Kissinger called it), with the task of “fighting communism” and imposing a neoliberal economy—tasks that the country had performed diligently during Brazil’s military dictatorship (1964-85).

Mattis went even further during his visit to Colombia, during which the possibility of a “humanitarian military intervention” to restore “democracy and freedom” in Venezuela began to be earnestly floated. The prospect of such an intervention was endorsed just a few days later by the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, on a visit to a border area with Venezuela.

At the international level, Colombia poses the greatest threat to Venezuela. President Iván Duque—and his political patron, former president Alvaro Uribe—seem willing to push for a full-scale escalation with Venezuela, in order to have a pretext to denounce the peace agreements signed by his predecessor with the former FARC guerrillas, agreements that Uribe’s extreme right never approved of.

Accordingly, a narrative has been building up for months—also pushed by the opposition politicians and media outlets in Venezuela—about the supposed safe haven that Maduro has guaranteed for Colombian armed groups in Venezuelan territory. According to this narrative, military operations have been conducted in Colombian territory which started on the Venezuelan side.

Last week’s attack against the police school in Bogota (21 deaths) by the Guevarist guerrilla movement National Liberation Army (ELN) served as a textbook opportunity for the Duque government to give a further sense of urgency to his plans—and also to engage Cuba in a dangerous high-tension dispute with the right-wing governments in Latin America, and especially with the hawks in the Trump administration. The Colombian president accused Maduro of harboring the “terrorists” of the ELN, and ordered the Havana government to hand over the members of the ELN delegation which have been in Cuba for more than a year, engaged in negotiations for a peace agreement with the Colombian government. These negotiations were frozen—if not broken off outright—by Duque immediately after he took up the presidency in July.

Cuba’s government has expressed its clear disavowal of “any act of terrorism,” but is saying that it will abide by the provisions of the existing protocols in case of the breakdown of the peace negotiations, which do not justify extraditing the ten members of the ELN delegation to Bogotà.

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