Once again, President Trump’s administration has made a controversial foreign policy decision. On Jan. 23, Trump recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate President of Venezuela after Guaidó swore himself in at an opposition rally.
As you can imagine, the internet lost its collective mind. A viral tweet from American rapper Boots Riley echoes the sentiments of the virulent anti-imperialist critique that came from all corners of the political spectrum:
Elected members of Congress jumped in, including Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who called the move illegal.
Many others are angry, perhaps motivated by suspicion that the U.S. is meddling in the affairs of yet another Latin American country. We’ve certainly had our fair share of coups, death squads and interventions, mostly to the detriment of everyone.
Alas, while critics of Trump’s routinely absurd foreign policy are usually in the right, the situation in Venezuela is much more complicated than it appears. In reality, recognizing Juan Guaidó may be an important symbolic step towards discrediting a dangerous, authoritarian regime and restoring democracy back to a country from which it was stolen from.
To get a better understanding, it’s important to start with the primary criticism of Trump’s decision, which is that recognizing Guaidó is akin to attempting to overthrow the “democratically” elected leader, President Nicolás Maduro. In fact, Guaidó is president of the National Assembly, the democratically-elected legislature of the country. In 2015, the country’s opposition coalition dominated the National Assembly in a landslide, a direct rebuke to President Maduro. The majority was elected on the sole promise to unseat Maduro, particularly as a severe economic crisis unfolded.
Instead of accepting the legitimacy of the National Assembly, Maduro usurped its power through a series of undemocratic moves.
Shortly after, Maduro stacked the Supreme Court with 13 government loyalists that vetoed any anti-government bill that came Maduro’s way. Eventually, Maduro completely nullified the legitimacy of the Assembly and held “elections” for a new Constituent Assembly, the governing body of Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, the elections for the body — which is dominated by pro-Maduro loyalists — were strongly contested by the international community. When Maduro wasn’t busy sidelining the Assembly, he was barring popular candidates like Henrique Capriles from running for office or jailing them for organizing rallies against the government.
Truth is, there haven’t been many free and fair elections in Venezuela for a long time now. The election that put Maduro in office in 2013 itself was contested by the opposition, particularly because they lost by less than a percentage point. It’s hard to believe the outcome was fair, especially since the National Electoral Council is essentially an arm of the state.
But even if 2013 was a free and fair election, Maduro’s recent elections most certainly haven’t been. Since the rise of the opposition, Maduro has engaged in dubious electoral practices to get votes. The regime has tacitly threatened to revoke people’s government food cards if they don’t vote for the ruling Socialist party. The company that owns most Venezuelan voting machines, Smartmatic, says the vote that elected the Constituent Assembly was manipulated by upwards of 1 million votes. Other recent irregularities have been recorded at the regional level as well, suggesting that Venezuelan democracy is corrupt at every level.
As a result of Maduro’s blatantly undemocratic rule, the country is in economic paralysis. Some still support the regime, but the vast majority are subject to starvation, sky-high inflation and unemployment. Others have fled to neighboring Colombia as refugees.
Here’s where Trump’s move to recognize Guaidó comes in. The U.S. and Guaidó know he isn’t the actual president. They do know, however, that joining sides gives the opposition in Venezuela more credibility. Specifically, it signals to the military — which protects the regime from falling to avoid being prosecuted for a myriad of crimes they’re complicit in, including drug trafficking — that they can trust the opposition should they come to power. There have already been defectors, many of whom are growing tired of watching their friends and families suffer. With the U.S. on the opposition’s side, others waiting to abandon a government in slow-motion collapse can finally jump ship without fearing Guaidó will sick the International Criminal Court on them.
It’s easy to stoke fears about a U.S. coup in Venezuela, but recognizing the opposition is an embrace of democratic principles, not a violation of them. Through strategic diplomacy and pressure from others, the U.S. and Venezuela’s Latin American neighbors could take down Maduro without firing a single shot.