As night fell over Venezuela Wednesday, the long-troubled nation had been plunged into uncharted waters: a divided country with two presidents and mounting uncertainty about which one would emerge victorious.
The day began with Juan Guaidó declaring himself president and calling for a new election, putting him on a collision course with leader Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled but still powerful leader.
But even as Guaidó, 35, was receiving recognition from the international community, Maduro was ensconced in the Miraflores presidential palace surrounded by the one true arbiter of the nation’s power: the military.
Speaking to a crowd of red-clad supporters, Maduro said Washington was playing with fire by recognizing Guaidó — pushing the country toward a civil conflict.
Then he turned to the military commanders standing by his side. “I ask the armed forces and the military for maximum loyalty, maximum union and maximum discipline,” he said. “We are also going to win this battle.”
Without military support, it will be difficult for Guaidó to persevere, analysts said.
Despite the enthusiasm on the street and international recognition, “there are other conditions necessary for political transition that today do not appear to be present,” wrote Risa Grais-Targow, the Latin America Director of the Eurasia Group, “namely a recognition by senior elements of the military that there is no way to sustain Maduro’s regime or break in the chain of command that forces their hand.”
What seems clear is that Venezuela isn’t big enough for both leaders.
As he swore himself into the presidency, Guaidó warned that Maduro wouldn’t budge unless there were prolonged protests. Many still recall the large anti-government demonstrations in 2014 and 2017 that began with much enthusiasm but fizzled out after months and at the cost of hundreds of lives.
“Those who have usurped the symbols of power believe — their calculation is — that the pressure will ease on the streets and that we’ll grow tired,” he said. “But we will keep insisting until we have democracy and freedom.”
A few hours later, Maduro was leading his own, smaller rally. He said Washington was trying to establish a puppet regime using Guaidó and he ordered the courts to “defend the constitution” — a thinly veiled threat to have Guaidó arrested.
The threat’s not empty. Venezuela has 287 political prisoners in its jails, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group, and many of Maduro’s political rivals have ended up behind bars.
Asked if he feared going to jail, Guaidó said, “I’m not worried about that, I’m worried about our people who are suffering.”
On Wednesday, Washington warned Venezuela from jailing Guaidó or harming other opposition figures.
A senior administration official, who spoke on background said that if “Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence” or harm members of Venezuela’s congress, “all actions are on the table.” And he said that the economic and diplomatic measures taken thus far “barely scratched the surface” in terms of what’s possible.
The prospect of dueling presidencies could have deep implications.
Shortly after Washington recognized Guaidó as president, Maduro broke all ties with the United States and ordered all embassy staff to leave within 72 hours. Then Guaidó circulated a message to all of the country’s embassies saying “the government of Venezuela strongly desires you keep your diplomatic presence in the country” and to “ignore” instructions that might come from other bodies. It was signed: Juan Guaidó — President.
Guaidó’s provocative actions seem designed to force a conclusion as quickly as possible, said Phil Gunson a senior analyst with the Crisis Group based in Caracas.
“The idea that Guaidó might remain in Venezuela, and that there’s going to be some kind of parallel presidency that he would try to make effective, is not realistic,” he said.
Unless the military or Venezuela’s security forces come out quickly in his defense, he’ll likely end up in exile or jail, Gunson predicted.
On the other hand, “the longer it takes Maduro to resolve the crisis “the more doubts will grow within the military that [Maduro’s] not really the president,” he said.
At issue is the May 10 reelection that Maduro claims he won with 68 percent of the vote and gives him the right to rule the country through 2025. And there are many nations, including Russia, Mexico and Turkey, that agree with him. But dozens of others — including the European Union and the 14 nations of the Lima Group, say the race was plagued by fraud. In that reading, Maduro is illegitimate and that presidency has been “vacant” since he began his second term on Jan. 10.
Washington has been a vocal proponent of that theory. On Wednesday, Donald Trump congratulated Guaidó and said, “I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”
But Venezuela has tested Washington’s determination in the past, and it could do so again.
“The U.S. government and its allies are right to isolate the Venezuelan regime, to reject Nicolás Maduro’s fraudulent reelection and to recognize the National Assembly president as Venezuela’s head of state,” said Benjamin Gedan, who was responsible for Venezuela policy on the National Security Council and now serves as a senior adviser to the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program. “That said, the international community cannot wish a new government into existence. Only sustained pressure by the Venezuelan people will bring about a political transition.”
The prospect of parallel presidencies came the same day the opposition held its largest march in more than a year. As crowds gathered in Sucre, in eastern Caracas, earlier in the day, city council member Juan Carlos Vidal said violent clashes the previous night with police had some protesters wary of taking the street, but they had still showed up in force. And he called on onetime supporters of the ruling party, or Chavistas, to join the protest.
“At this moment, on this historic occasion, we extend our hand to Chavistas who want to join us,” he said. “We welcome them with an embrace and all are welcome, because Venezuela needs them to rebuild.”
But in a country where your political allegiance can determine whether or not you have access to subsidized food and other government benefits, some are still wary.
Miguel Pérez took the subway from his home in Catia, a government stronghold, to protest in eastern Caracas, away from prying eyes. Asked what he was protesting, he said “everything,” including the economic chaos that has forced more than 3.3 million Venezuelans to flee in recent years.
“I am protesting because I want to see my family reunited, he said, fighting back tears. “And so that no other family has to go through what I’ve gone through.”
The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, which tracks protests, said that there were at least 61 neighborhoods racked by demonstrations in Caracas overnight Tuesday and that at least one person had died. Notably, the protests hit areas once considered government bulwarks in western Caracas, like the 23 de Enero and Petare neighborhoods. And that’s fueling expectations that Wednesday’s marches could have broad support from Venezuela’s working class barrios.
By Wednesday afternoon, plumes of smoke were rising over Caracas and local TV showed pictures of overturned vehicles set on fire, likely harbingers of another restless, violent, night. Local media reported that at least seven people had been killed during Wednesday’s protests.
The lingering question: How long will the uncertainty last?
“This movement is unstoppable,” Guaidó said. “Because hope has returned here today … with the certainty that change is coming and the faith that it will happen soon.”