Demonstrations Rock Venezuela
January 23rd marks the 61st anniversary of an uprising that overthrew former Venezuelan dictator Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez. And massive opposition protests are taking place against the Maduro administration
Drone shots of the protests in Caracas on la avenida Juan Pablo II
With the re-election of Nicolas Maduro widely viewed as invalid, members of the opposition party in the National Assembly have called on Venezuelans to join planned protests for today. This follows a failed coup attempt on Sunday. National Guardsmen seized weapons in Caracas and called on citizens to take to the streets. This was followed by large blackouts of Social Media in Venezuela and a quick arrest. But the Venezuelans I have been speaking to in Colombia, as well large numbers on Social Media all hope that today proves pivotal in speaking out against and possibly the removal of Venezuela's unpopular president. The protests are already the biggest Venezuela has seen in two years.
Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly has recently emerged as a leader of the opposition and has publicly declared the presidency of Nicolas Maduro invalid. The opposition in Venezuela has been largely without a leader since the last massive street protests in 2017, which led to mass arrests of Maduro's political opponents.
There have already been four reported deaths this morning as the protests gear up. And there are widespread reports on Social Media of strong responses from police forces, particularly at informal blockades that have been set up on city streets in Caracas, the capital and a stronghold of Maduro support.
11:58 a.m: Some members of the Venezuelan National Guard invite citizens to join in the street protests, promising protection in a televised statement. This combined with the attempted coup over the weekend suggest that there are portions of the Venezuelan military willing to abandon Maduro if the situation escalates.
12:04 p.m: Useful hashtags to follow #23ene #VenezuelaGritaLibertad
12:09: Reports of widespread internet outages in Venezuela, targeting google, and most social media confirmed by Netblocks.org , an international internet service tracking company.
This marks the third time that internet services have been blocked by the Government in Venezuela this year alone. Comparisons from this morning to the Arab Spring may be premature, but the US administration is widely expected to back Juan Guaidó if he declares himself president. It is early in the day. And Maduro is reported to be in control of the vast majority of the armed forces. The question then becomes, do they believe he has the political cover that will allow them to put down the protests violently if it comes to that?
12:54 p.m: In a major developlement Juan Guaidó has declared himself President of Venezuela.
Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly, and self-proclaimed President of Venezuela
What does this mean? Well the immediate takeaway is that he feels he has enough international support and that the protests are large enough that he won't be simply "disappeared" by the Maduro regime. Various Latin American governments have already pledged him their support, and the US has been signalling it is willing to do the same. This presents the first direct challenge to Maduro in years. The response from the Venezuelan military will be key to what happens next. They have remained loyal to Maduro largely due to cash payments and profits from oil revenue. But if they feel the situation has become unsupportable they may stand down completely.
At the very least this represents an incredible escalation in the struggle for control of Venezuela.
1:18 pm: US President Donald Trump officially has recognized Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela. This was widely expected, but nonetheless puts enormous pressure on Maduro. The erratic foreign Policy of Trump notwithstanding, a direct physical challenge by Maduro towards the opposition could result in grave consequences. And all of this among the largest protests in Venezuela in years. This is certain at the very least to embolden the supporters of the opposition.
1:29 pm: Venezuelan news organizations are painting the US move as part of an attempted coup. The leading explanation is that it is an attempt by the US control Venezuela's massive oil-reserves, or at the least put someone in power who will give them access.
2:08 pm: OEA or Organization of American Nations recognizes Juan Guaidó as interim president of Venezuela, stating that "The clock is running out on the Maduro regime". Ivan duque of Colombia followed with a formal recognition shortly thereafter. The list of nations now recognizing Opposition President Juan Guaidó includes: Paraguay, Colombia, Canada, the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica and Chile.
As news continues to roll in I'm talking with some Venezuelans here in Colombia. While excited that this could portend an end to the Maduro regime, the majority have little faith in the opposition leaders. They fear that the party of Guaidó is corrupt as well, and unlikely to benefit the people of Venezuela much. I would describe their mood as "hopeful but restrained". The general sense is that anything is better than Maduro. But pessimism runs deep that the culture of corruption in their police forces, army and government in general can be overcome by a rebellion.
We speak as demonstrations of solidarity are being organized all over Colombia. Social Media is alight with videos shot by cellular phones. It is difficult to parse out exactly what is happening on the ground. But we are seeing a flood of images and a wave of impossible-to-confirm stories from virtually every city in Venezuela. Some feature melees between protesters and government forces. Images of youths with improvised shields, their mouths covered in bandanas in an effort to reduce the effects of tear-gas, and hastily-crafted barricades standing off against waves of heavily armed police.
3:59 pm: Guiado, 35 is the head of the Venezuelan National Assembly. Maduro doesn't recognize the institution and the Judicial Branch of the Venezuelan government ratified legislation disbanding the congressional body. Since assuming the leadership position, Guiado has been lobbying vehemently for international support and recognition should he step-up to assume the presidency. As a bit of background, Maduro has been able to maintain power with backing from the Venezuelan Army, whom he has put into positions of power controlling large swaths of the government, including the State run Oil Company. And as the economic crisis in Venezuela worsened, military leaders were sheltered from the fallout by access to petro-dollars.
The military at this point has made no public statements, although a few low-level individuals have signalled support for the opposition.
Guiado has called for new elections in Venezuela. The last round of elections that saw Maduro win re-election were widely discredited by the international community.
4:26 pm: Following an order by Maduro to rescind all foreign Diplomats from the countries recognizing the presidency of Guiado. Juan Guiado has issued a communique pleading that all diplomats remain. It is an interesting communication, because it represents his first official communication with all of his newly-recognized backers.
It reads: "A communique to all diplomats in Venezuela. At this moment, by all the powers granted to me by the Constitution, I ask that all Diplomatic officers and their accredited personnel in the State of Venezuela maintain firmly their Diplomatic posts in our country. To that effect, that they ignore any order contrary to the legitimate power in Venezuela, in virtue of the Constitution, and to state that all diplomatic missions and their personnel operating in Venezuela continue to enjoy all respective immunities and privileges. And that they ignore orders to the contrary emanating from persons or entities that, by their very character of relating to an usurpation of power, have no authority to issue proclamations on this subject."
5:46: Signing off for the day. The most recent development is we are seeing completely unconfirmed rumors that Guiado is currently speaking with Venezuelan military leaders. Barring a huge development, we will pick up our coverage tomorrow. Muros Invisibles also has two long-form interviews with Venezuelans tomorrow, and we will be sharing their thoughts and opinions on today's historic events. As we sign off, we only have one burning question: "Who is power in Venezuela?" And the honest answer seems to be that no one knows.
We hope for peace in Venezuela regardless of how all of this turns out.