For Venezuela’s opposition, dawn broke on Tuesday with a jolt of political lightning and an auspicious photo-op. Interim President Juan Guaidó, flanked by heavily armed soldiers and the country’s best known political prisoner, Leopoldo López, announced the time had come to oust Nicolás Maduro.
With the help of rebellious troops, Guaidó held out the promise that 20 years of single-party rule — first under Hugo Chávez and now Maduro — could end with a military-backed popular uprising.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that Maduro had even been prepared to flee — that he had a plane parked on the tarmac ready to take off to Cuba.
That López, who was serving a 13-year prison sentence under house arrest, was freed by his Military Intelligence captors, seemed to bolster the idea that the armed forces would play a starring role in what Guaidó calls “Operation Liberty.”
But as the day wore on, Guaidó’s army of defectors never appeared en masse. And rather than leading a colossal march on the Miraflores Presidential Palace, as some were hoping for, the push devolved into running and brutal street battles that left at least 60 wounded, according to local reports.
And Pompeo said Russia had talked Maduro out of leaving the country.
Guaidó’s three-month-long push to oust Maduro, it appeared, would require more time.
Why the military and other high-ranking officials didn’t heed the call to topple Maduro remains unknown, but it’s clear that Guaidó and U.S. officials were expecting something else.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López and Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno and others had been talking to the opposition and had agreed to help oust the embattled leader. And he held out hope they might ignore their Cuban handlers and do right by the country.
“All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Bolton said of the men. “They need to be able to act this afternoon and this evening to be able to bring other military forces to the side of the interim president.”
As of Tuesday night there was no sign of that happening. Padrino López, on national television, mounted one of the most impassioned defenses of his boss, saying that anyone who tried to march on the presidency would face the full brunt of the armed forces.
“We reject this aggression directed by the North American empire,” he said.
Guaidó, 35, is recognized by Washington and more than 50 other nations as the country’s only legitimate leader. They argue that Maduro, 57, has stayed in power through a series of increasingly fraudulent elections and as the nation has crumbled. In recent years, more than 3.4 million people have fled hunger, disease, crime and political oppression.
Yddy Subero, a 35-year-old business administrator in Caracas, had come out onto the streets to protest for Guaidó and end the national nightmare.
“I hope this ends without blood,” she said, “that [Maduro] has a heart and leaves peacefully.”
But that’s unlikely. In the opposition strongholds of eastern Caracas, armored troop carriers loyal to Maduro rammed into demonstrators armed with little more than rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. Local TV showed one of the vehicles driving over the median and crushing a protester.
Guaidó is calling for more protests on Wednesday, saying Maduro had lost the support of the armed forces.
Things had seemed more hopeful in the morning. Shortly after Guaidó gave his predawn speech at the Carlota Air Force Base in Caracas, rumors spread that Armed Forces Chief of Staff Jose Ornelias and powerful commander Jesús Suárez Chourio were behind the military uprising. But just as quickly both men joined a growing list of officials swearing loyalty to Maduro.
Then the opposition’s attempts to take — or at least surround — Carlota, an iconic military base in the heart of Caracas, fell short as they were repelled with tear gas and tanks.
That military officials who owe their careers and livelihood to Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela didn’t abandon him shouldn’t have come as a surprise, said a former U.S. diplomat in Washington, who would only talk on background.
He said he’d known about Guaidós plans to call for an uprising for at least 10 days.
“If I knew it, then everyone knew it,” he said. “The [Maduro] regime saw it coming and was prepared. The regime probably even knew that people in the government were talking to the opposition and probably even approved of it.”
Guaidó had originally called for a national march on Wednesday, May Day, so Tuesday’s video announcement (released at about 5:40 a.m.) caught many by surprise. Asked if the United States had been given a “heads up” about the uprising, Bolton said: “We feel very well informed about what’s going on.”
Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, said that the next several hours could be critical. If there are high level military defections and significant street protests continue, “it has the potential to be the long-awaited catalyst that initiates a negotiated transition.”
“However, Guaidó’s move is also a highly precarious bet,” she wrote. “If Maduro can successfully put down the rebellion, it will be a strong signal that he still enjoys a high degree of military support, which in turn will probably deflate the opposition.”
Earlier in the day, Venezuela security expert Brian Fonseca, a former Marine and U.S. Southern Command intelligence analyst who now serves as the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University, said Guaidó’s military support seemed to be flagging.
“What we saw today so far is some elements of the National Guard, some general officers from the National Guard” actually support Guaidó, Fonseca said. He estimated that the total number of forces behind Guaidó was likely only in the hundreds. “To me, the most important, powerful branch is the Army and we are not seeing the types of fractures there,” Fonseca said.
Guaidó took a risk announcing the military support, Fonseca said, and if the Army does not back him, it could be crippling. “If today’s movement falls flat — what does that mean for credibility of the Guaidó movement?”
But it’s clear that Maduro is also politically wounded. As he faced outright revolt from some of his military and the seething discontent on the streets, Maduro stayed out of public view. Only hours after the uprising had started, he tweeted that he’d talked to his commanders and that they had sworn “their loyalty to the people, the Constitution, and to the Fatherland…We will be Victorious!”
Roger Noriega, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere during the George W. Bush administration, said that Tuesday was looking like another short-term loss for the opposition, but it, once again, put Maduro’s ruthlessness on display.
He also said the situation in Venezuela had become more volatile as Russia, China, Cuba and others work to prop up the Maduro regime.
“This may look like a failure at this point, but one thing that it confirms is that we can’t walk away from this, the United States has to be more creative and no less energetic,” he said. “It’s no longer a showdown with tropical dictators, because we have China and Russia involved. ... It’s not unthinkable that the Russians will be able to sustain Maduro in defiance of the U.S. [so] we have to dig in on this and look for a better set of options.”
Earlier this year, Russia sent at least 100 military advisers and tons of hardware to Venezuela.
In a statement, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said the country only supported a negotiated solution to the political crisis.
“The radical opposition in Venezuela has again resorted to violent methods of confrontation,” the government said. “Instead of seeking to settle political disputes peacefully, it has adopted a course of escalating the conflict, provoking violations of public order and staging clashes with the involvement of the armed forces.”
For Guaidó and López, the stakes are high. Maduro has stopped short of arresting Guaidó, but some speculate that restraint is now gone.
On Tuesday Chile’s Foreign Minister said López and his wife, Lilian Tintori, had become “guests” at the Chilean embassy in Caracas — a sign that they could no longer count on the crowds to keep them safe. López’s Voluntad Popular party later said that he was not seeking asylum and would not be staying at the embassy permanently.
On Tuesday evening, Guaidó suggested that victory was the only option remaining.
“Venezuela: We have the power in our hands to end, once and for all, this usurpation,” he said. “This process is unstoppable. We have the firm backing of our people and the world to reestablish our democracy.”
Caracas-based freelancer Carlos Camacho contributed to this article.