Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s impossible to know with certainty what the next few days will bring for Venezuelans, but it seems clear that the end of their long national nightmare did not come on Tuesday, as so many had hoped, after opposition leader Juan Guaido dramatically announced what he called “the final phase of Operation Liberty.”
Guaido, flanked by his mentor, the charismatic former presidential candidate Leopoldo Lopez, announced that security forces had joined the effort to topple President Nicolas Maduro. That’s why Lopez, who had been under house arrest and was freed by his guards, was marching in the protests as a free man. They called on their backers to turn out, and on the military to help oust Maduro’s regime.
The effort apparently came close to working. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Maduro was about to board a plane to Havana, but the Russians persuaded him to stay.
But the military defections were not sufficient for a quick victory. The standoff continues, and so does Venezuela’s tragedy.
The Venezuelan conflict may seem complicated, but what’s at stake is simple. Sure, there are geopolitical ramifications and multiple forces at play. But above all, we should view Venezuela as a human tragedy. If you don’t know who to root for as you see reports of competing forces and hear accounts of rival narratives, root for the Venezuelan people.
Rooting for the Venezuelan people means hoping that Maduro will step down peacefully, bringing to a close the most disastrous regime Venezuela has ever seen. It means recognizing that the opposition deserves to emerge victorious.
News organizations, including CNN at times on Tuesday, labeled the opposition-led revolt an “attempted coup” – but that was not only unfortunate, it was also incorrect and harmful. Venezuela has already had a coup. Maduro and his cronies took power illegally. Maduro rigged elections, locked up opposition candidates and took control of the judiciary and every “independent” government entity.
The last relatively fair elections came in 2015. That’s when the opposition won an overwhelming two-thirds of the seats in Congress. Maduro and his acolytes then stripped the legislature of all its powers.
In last year’s presidential election, Maduro, whose approval rating has barely budged above 20%, somehow won with nearly 70% of the vote. It was a sham, but he took office in January.
That’s when Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president, in keeping with the Venezuelan constitution. He vows to call new elections and fully restore the constitutional order as soon as Maduro is out.
Yes, the Trump administration supports the opposition, and that makes a lot of President Donald Trump’s critics extend their suspicions to Guaido. But it’s not only Washington backing the Venezuelan opposition. More than 50 countries recognize him as the country’s legitimate leader. The world’s leading democracies, the European Union, Canada, and most Latin American countries support the man who leads the country’s only democratically elected body.
Maduro, on the other hand, has the backing of autocratic regimes, including Russia, China, Turkey, Cuba and Nicaragua.
The Maduro regime has destroyed much of Venezuela. It didn’t just crush its democratic institutions; it also devastated its economy and much of its social order. By now the problem is not about politics. It’s about survival. For Venezuela’s neighbors, the matter is also urgent. Conditions have become so desperate that Venezuelans are fleeing by the millions, straining other countries. The UN estimates there will be more than 5 million Venezuelan refugees by the end of this year, comparable to the exodus caused by the Syrian civil war.
Under Maduro the poverty rate has exploded. From less than half of the population in 2014, an appalling 90% of Venezuelans now live in grinding poverty. The figures are so dismal that the government stopped publishing them, according to the Borgen Project. For most Venezuelans, each day brings a demoralizing, exhausting quest to find the basics. Hospitals have no medicine, often no water or electricity. It’s difficult enough for young people. For the elderly and infirm it is an excruciating ordeal.
And with intense, desperate poverty, comes crime, which makes daily life not only more difficult but also terrifying for most people. The crime rate is said to be among the world’s highest. Government, too, has become a kleptocracy.
The worst-case scenario is a civil war, and an indefinite continuation of the dreadful Maduro regime. As long as military leaders, concerned about their own well-being, opt to protect Maduro instead of saving their country, the suffering of the Venezuelan people will go on, with millions more becoming refugees.
The United States should refrain from intervening militarily, but should continue providing decisive diplomatic, and even logistical, support. As for the public around the world, we should hope that the powerful in Venezuela will see the light, and either persuade Maduro to leave, or escort him out of office.