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World Venezuelans, with two presidents, on edge waiting for a decisive move from the military

Flanked by the country’s top military leaders, Venezuelan Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez declares his support for beleaguered United Socialist Party Leader Nicolas Maduro at a news conference in Caracas on Thursday.

LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images

The charismatic young leader of Venezuela’s opposition took a huge gamble on Wednesday, knowing he had most of the international community behind him, and that he might finally spur an end to the country’s economic and humanitarian crisis – or that he could end up behind bars, or worse, by day’s end.

A massive crowd of opposition supporters gathered under bright blue skies in Caracas and saw Juan Guaido raise his hand to take the oath as interim president. There were two outcomes that could follow: that the country’s military would recognize his legitimacy, and begin a political transition, or, far more likely, that the government of Nicolas Maduro would quickly respond with fierce repression.

When the United States, Canada and almost every other country in the Americas recognized Mr. Guaido as interim president within hours of that oath-taking, there was new pressure on the military, which has remained loyal to Mr. Maduro through Venezuela’s deepening crisis, in part because he has funnelled a large share of the country’s dwindling resources to its leadership.

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But for more than 36 hours, Venezuela has had two presidents, and a single military, and the country remains on a knife-edge, waiting to see which side the armed forces will take.

In the first hours after the declaration, there was silence from the military leadership; then there was a pro-Maduro tweet from the Defence Minister, Vladimir Padrino. On Thursday, he made a speech, flanked by the heads of the armed forces, saying the military would defend Mr. Maduro’s right to the presidency.

“But I’m not sure that the military are with him: The military men and women of Venezuela always are very pragmatic and most may be evaluating that the situation of Maduro is not sustainable – because the crisis is terrible – the sanctions, the pressure," said Margarita Lopez Maya, a historian and retired professor at the Central University in Caracas.

“The opposition was very sure that they could count on international support and sure of the plans of the U.S. to continue to put pressure on Maduro,” she added. "What they weren’t sure of was that they would get the Venezuelan people to come out that day – but the people were in the streets, not only in Caracas but in 60 cities. The opposition thought they could make him interim president – but they didn’t have the piece of the puzzle that is the military, and they still don’t, not yet. It’s a very risky game, what they did yesterday ... but I don’t see Maduro being able to overcome this crisis.”

A confluence of events led up to Wednesday’s drama. Mr. Maduro, the anointed heir of socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, was re-elected president in May, 2018, in a vote that most of the world did not recognize as legitimate, after he banned most key opposition figures from participating. He delayed his inauguration until Jan. 10, the usual inauguration day in the Venezuelan political cycle.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas on Jan. 24, 2019.

CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/Reuters

But on Jan. 5, the National Assembly, where the opposition won a strong majority in 2016, elected Mr. Guaido its new leader. He is the kind of figure who has been absent from Venezuelan opposition politics for some time: He is young (just 35) and untainted by the infighting and failed efforts of the opposition in the past, he is charismatic and, as he has quickly demonstrated, he has leadership skills. In his first two weeks as head of the assembly, Mr. Guaido led the drafting of some key pieces of legislation including a law that offers amnesty to members of the military should they, in essence, defect.

He called for mass mobilization on Jan. 23, a national holiday in Venezuela that commemorates the end of the last dictatorship in 1958, setting the stage for drama. And when the streets filled, he acted, drawing on a clause in the Venezuelan constitution that says that when the presidency is vacated (the original intent was likely for the death or severe illness of a president, but in this case, Mr. Guaido pointed to illegitimacy), the president of the National Assembly must act as interim president of the country and oversee a new election.

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“It was an absolutely gutsy move and people respect that,” said David Smilde, who teaches Latin American politics at Tulane University and has lived in Caracas for much of the past 25 years. The international recognition of his role that came so swiftly “was clearly co-ordinated with the logical idea that doing so might get the military to side with Guaido," he added.

Prof. Lopez said the military leaders need to feel they have an honourable and dignified way out (and will not end up either killed by lynch mobs or on trial for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court) – which includes, she added dryly, assurances that the fortunes they have amassed in offshore accounts will be safe. “And that could take some time to negotiate, and in the meantime, they will not indicate they are not with Maduro,” she said. Venezuela’s rank-and-file soldiers struggle to find food to buy with their near-worthless wages, she said, just like the rest of the country, and for more than a year many have adopted the habit of taking off their uniforms before they go home on leave, so that they’re not identifiable as soldiers.

Prof. Smilde said Mr. Maduro survived a crucial test by lasting this long, but that it was impossible to know what kind of talks were happening inside the defence ministry or the presidential palace.

“The military is seeing virtually the entire country united [around Mr. Guaido],” said Ben Rowswell, who was Canada’s ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017. “They have a historical knack of picking a winner – and they will stick with the existing president up to moment that they change sides.”

On Wednesday, after the U.S. government recognized Mr. Guaido, Mr. Maduro expelled U.S. diplomats from the country, and gave them 72 hours to get out. Mr. Guaido countered that they did not need to leave and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said they would not go.

“The situation at the embassy is a game of chicken – it’s quite an impasse,” said Jennifer McCoy, a Venezuela expert who teaches at the University of Georgia. “Who’s going to blink first? It was an impetuous move by Maduro [to order the U.S. diplomats to leave], but it’s a high-risk play by [U.S. President Donald] Trump to say they will stay. Maduro will have to back down because he can’t risk the possibility that military won’t join a confrontation with the U.S.” On Thursday, Mr. Maduro ordered the closing of Venezuela’s embassy and consulates in the United States.

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Victor Drax, who writes for a news website called Caracas Chronicles, went out to the main Caracas demonstration on Wednesday braced for violent confrontations with police and soldiers, the kind that have erupted around opposition protests for the past five years. To his astonishment, he reached a central plaza and saw Mr. Guaido, clad in jeans and a blazer, take the stage – and then raise his hand and take the oath.

A woman walks past a graffiti wall that reads in Spanish: 'Get out Maduro. Usurper,' referring to President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Jan. 24, 2019.

The Associated Press

“I hoped in my heart of hearts that he would do it. I thought he might because there were rumours – but to actually hear him was a shock all the same – and to be honest it was a bit emotional,” he said in a telephone interview from Caracas. “All around me people were screaming and crying and above all I just felt disbelief.”

A day later, Mr. Drax was marvelling that Mr. Guaido was not yet in jail. The shortages of food, medicine, and electricity – an annual inflation rate over one million per cent – make for an untenable situation in Venezuela, he said, and yet he is unsure that Mr. Guaido has really kicked off an inexorable process of change.

“There is cautious optimism, it’s strong optimism even – the thing is, you want to believe but you’ve been through this before, so you think, don’t set yourself up for disappointment.”

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