Venezuela is again living through one of the most critical times of its recent history – but the result of a military uprising in the streets of the capital Caracas is, as yet, unclear.
In the very early hours of Tuesday, opposition leader Juan Guaido posted a message from the outskirts of a key military base in the heart of Caracas, urging civilians and military personnel to rise against embattled president Nicolas Maduro.
Next to Guaido were several men and women in uniform, members of the armed forces who defected against Maduro and joined sides with the opposition.
One of them, Sergeant Sequea, told me on Tuesday that, “Discontent had been growing within the military barracks for some time now, but this is now the time to materialise our discontent on the streets.” His units, he told me, were ready to “stay put as long as needed to force Nicolas Maduro to step down”.
Guaido’s bold action, calling for a military uprising from the outskirts of an air force base flanked by soldiers, did not obtain the results he was perhaps waiting for, just yet.
Right now the situation in Venezuela is still fluid: no senior members of the military responded to Guaido’s call, and late on Tuesday Maduro was speaking live on state television saying the uprising had been defeated.
Is this the end of it, then?
Not quite yet.
Tuesday’s actions are easily the most dramatic escalation of the Venezuelan crisis we have seen so far, because of two elements in particular.
Next to Guaido was standing Leopoldo Lopez, an incredibly popular opposition leader who has been held under arrest since 2014. Lopez spent three years in jail before being granted house arrest in 2017, at the height of the harsh wave of protests that year.
His house has been patrolled by Maduro’s intelligence service ever since. His presence on the street, and the fact that he was somehow able to elude his captors’ guard, is a sign that the military apparatus is not as adamantly on Maduro’s side as the embattled president would like tosuggest. As a result, the head of the intelligence service was replaced on Tuesday.
The presence of military men side by side with Juan Guaido is another significant development. For months, the opposition leader had urged soldiers and officers to take arms against Maduro, but his calls seemed to fall unheard so far. Tuesday was the first time that those calls received a response, albeit a limited one. This could lead to an escalation in the confrontation between government and opposition in Caracas, with military units operating on both sides. For the first time in the past three years, soldiers opened fire against each other, when a platoon of Maduro-loyal national guardsmen approached the location where pro-Guaido soldiers were positioned.
In his televised address, Maduro portrayed himself as the person firmly in control of the situation, but the presence of Lopez on the streets of Caracas, and of those soldiers flanking the opposition leader, show that this is not quite the case.
So, what happens next?
This is the million-dollar question hanging over Caracas: there has been a military uprising, and the situation is still very much developing, it’s just that the results that the opposition was aiming at have not been so far been achieved.
The next few hours and days will be crucial: Maduro’s reaction will be swift and the embattled leader will try to crush the new insurgence from the start. Any minute that the embattled leader spends in the presidential palace will make him stronger, because it will be clear that Guaido’s plot would not have succeeded.
The power tussle at the heart of the Venezuelan state has been brewing for some time, and Tuesday signified yet another level in the escalating confrontation.
Neither Guaido nor Maduro seem to have the complete control of the situation, although the latter is already claiming he avoided yet another plot to topple him.
Just as a recap… how did we get here?
Guaido is the president of the Venezuelan parliament, and back in January he claimed for himself acting presidential powers, triggering a constitutional crisis.
According to the Venezuelan constitution, if the Presidency is vacant, the President of Parliament is effectively the interim head of state until new elections are held, in a margin of 30 days.
Guaido claims that the elections in May 2018, which Maduro won, were rigged; and the majority of the international community is standing by the opposition leader and not recognizing Maduro’s presidency.
For his part, Maduro claims those elections were legitimate, and that he enjoys a popular mandate to the presidency. Countries such as China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Turkey, with vast economic interests at stake in Venezuela, are standing by the old leader.
In the background, the most dramatic economic collapse of the Western Hemisphere has brought Venezuela to its knees. You can pretty much pick and choose what stats best explain the situation, but perhaps no other number explains it like this: more than 3 million Venezuelans, about 10 per cent of the country’s population, have left in the past three years, fleeing the economic crisis in the single largest movement of people since the Syrian civil war.
Many of those will be glued to their screens in the next few days to see who will eventually prevail on the streets of Caracas.