Venezuela’s National Guard, whose support for President Nicolás Maduro has endured despite the country’s dire economic and humanitarian conditions, is beginning to show signs of a break. A budding insurgency within the force was quashed over the weekend, but not before the dozens of protesting guards used 21st century weapons – videos and social media posts stating they didn’t recognize Maduro as president – to rally support for their cause.
Since Jan. 11, two men have been claiming Venezuela’s presidency: Maduro, whose election to a second term is being disputed at home and by most of the international community; and Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, who declared the presidency vacant and appealed to Venezuela’s constitution to claim the role on an interim basis.
Guaidó called on Venezuelans to take to the streets tomorrow to show their support for the National Assembly and to push for new elections. Maduro’s second in command, Diosdado Cabello, has responded by calling on the regime’s supporters to take to the streets as well, setting up a potentially pivotal moment for Venezuela’s opposition.
Indeed, David Smolansky, the exiled former mayor of El Hatillo in Caracas and a visiting scholar at Georgetown University, says Jan. 23 is on everyone’s mind. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
AQ: The opposition to Maduro has been fragmented in Venezuela. Did that change after Jan. 11? Is there a unified front behind Guaidó now?
Smolansky: I think we are a united front. This is a historic opportunity that we are running the National Assembly and have the possibility of restoring democracy to Venezuela.
I’ve known Juan for more than 10 years, from when we were students at the Catholic University in Caracas. We are part of a generation that doesn’t know what it is to live with freedom, security and democracy, but that has not stopped us from keeping up the fight. He is a very humble guy. We co-founded the Voluntad Popular party and have been together in so many difficult moments, moments when lives were at risk. He is a courageous man and I think he is doing important work for Venezuela.
When I talk to people in Venezuela, everyone tells me they have hope again. It is a renaissance of hope. It is quite nice to hear that.
AQ: Is this united front enough to change the situation on the ground? Analysts say change in Venezuela would have to come from within chavismo. Do you agree with that? Or can this unity change the game?
Smolansky: It is incredible how people have come to the streets again, and the majority of the countries in the world have shown their commitment to democracy in Venezuela.
The only thing we need finally to build a transition is the armed forces. I know that middle- to low-ranking officials are suffering from the same problems as any Venezuelan and I know that many of them strongly disagree with the things Maduro has done. If they are able to articulate themselves and do what the constitution says, Maduro is done. And I think this could happen anytime. Half of the political prisoners, almost 200 of them, are soldiers. There has been movement in the last year, with evidence that many in the armed forces are not happy with what is going on. So far the regime has been able to dismantle them but that could change anytime.
When Guaidó was briefly arrested on Jan. 13, the policemen who detained him then let him go. Why? As a mayor I had the opportunity to work with local police and one of the most important values for security forces, for a soldier, is to obey the chain of command. They obey their commander-in-chief and their commander-in-chief isn’t Maduro anymore, it is Guaidó. That is why they let him go. They do not obey Maduro anymore – article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution says, when you have an absolute vacancy of the executive, which is what happened on Jan. 10 when Maduro’s first term ended, then the president of the National Assembly has to become interim president and therefore Venezuela’s commander-in-chief.
AQ: Is there a tangible plan for reconstruction?
Smolansky: We have several working groups and we have been meeting over the last month, discussing and agreeing on what is needed to rebuild the country. Energy policy, the economy, security, education, healthcare, infrastructure – these are all priorities for us. In my case I work with the security working group. We need a safe Venezuela. It is crucial to dismantle all the major criminal groups, all the organized crime that is operating freely in Venezuela now, and that includes the guerrillas and terror groups coming from Colombia. It is a crucial component, we need to review our police, to reinvent the penitentiary system.
AQ: These are big asks – how do you plan on acting on so many fronts at once?
Smolansky: We will need international cooperation. We are going to need support from countries in Latin America, the EU and U.S. and Canada. The international community response has been strong. There are more than 50 countries condemning Maduro and recognizing the National Assembly as the only democratic, legitimate institution in Venezuela.
But we need increased pressure from the international community because we are not facing a conventional dictatorship. This is beyond a dictatorship, this is now a criminal state, a mafia state.
At this point Maduro is very weak, he is very isolated in the country, he is isolated by his own people that were loyal, and of course internationally, as I said before, it could happen anytime. We just need the armed forces to take the step. Everyone is expecting them to do it.
AQ: Projections on the number of Venezuelans that have left the country in the last few years vary between 2.5 million up to 4 million – the largest migration the continent has seen. Does the transition include plans to bring back migrants?
Smolansky: The first thing needed to stop this crisis is to have democracy in Venezuela. If we restore democracy and freedom you are going to stop people fleeing the country and you are going to create incentives for Venezuelans to go back. There is so much talent abroad at this moment, doctors, teachers, lawyers, we are going to need all of them to rebuild the public sector and the private sector.
Tags: David Smolansky, E23, Juan Guaido, Venezuela