Are We Witnessing a ‘Latin Spring’ in Venezuela?

Nicolás Maduro’s downfall may be a prime example of how to oust corrupt leaders and promote democracy.

Arab Spring, move aside. Latin Spring is now blossoming, and if all goes well, it will be less bloody and a lot more successful at ousting corrupt leaders and promoting homegrown democratically elected representatives than the Middle East revolutions.

The North African and the Middle East popular movements that began in late 2010 shook up the power balance, catalyzed civil wars and further destabilized the region. Venezuela just experienced a so-far relatively peaceful and planned constitutional coup.

It’s way too early to predict if the effects of last week’s dramatic event will devolve into chaos or breed new forms of violence, corruption, juntas or dictatorships, but as with the Arab Spring countries, what kicked Venezuelans into action is that daily life hit rock bottom. Living conditions have gotten so bad that people’s hope for a better life completely dissolved. Ninety percent of Venezuelans today are living in poverty and over the last year had lost an average of 24 pounds. Citizens were both on the path to real starvation while on a strictly enforced diet from democracy.

A week ago, Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márquez announced that he was replacing the illegitimately re-elected—and still-resisting—Nicolás Maduro after a critical mass of hundreds of thousands of protesters hit the streets. Guaidó, the 35-year-old leader of the opposition National Assembly, declared himself interim president following a legislature-endorsed, American-recognized and popularly demanded political overthrow of Maduro. American allies and democratically elected regional leaders quickly jumped on the recognition bandwagon—rushing to make the Guaidó move stick.

The losers here are not only Maduro and his cronies, but the countries that have relied on strong relations for fuel subsidies or invested in the leadership in exchange for crude oil futures: Cuba and China.

Havana has long provided material and ideological support for the Caracas characters in power. Beijing saw a struggling Venezuela as a business and geostrategic opportunity. To China, Maduro was a vulnerable stooge for its ongoing plan to exploit Latin America’s raw materials and resources, while building political alliances in the process. If Guaidó’s political move succeeds, it will be yet another bad bet for President Xi Jinping and China’s business-led adventurism.

Controlling the inevitable social and political post-Maduro disruption will be key to the new government’s survival and for a return to normalcy for the Venezuelan people. This is not a given, but preparations for a post-Maduro Venezuela have long been in the works and will be a test of U.S foreign policy and the current administration.

Not three weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke in Egypt and criticized the Obama administration’s approach to a Middle East that has since resulted in a slow-going Tunisian recovery, Libyan chaos, an Egyptian military coup and the on-going and bloody Syrian civil war. Syria’s Assad government has cultivated a turf war that involves Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel in a regional battle royale to curry favor with some and kill regime opponents.

From former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure through today, we nudged and nurtured the opposition to Maduro’s regime to do everything from considering a military coup to starving the socialist government into submission, cutting off currency and slowing — even threatening to stop the country’s significant oil sales to the United States, currently half a million barrels a day.

If the Trump administration blows this opportunity for real and needed change in Caracas, it could create the conditions not only for a further failing Venezuela, but for wider instability throughout Latin America. The stakes are high, and whatever foreign planning has been done for the Venezuelans’ seemingly homegrown revolution had better work.

International recognition of the interim Guiadó administration is only the first step toward stability. The next will be significant and real international humanitarian aid. What does that aid look like? Food for a beleaguered and hungry populace; medicine to make up for the shortages and to replace black marketeers and crisis racketeers; support for policing; policies to ensure security in the streets and at schools; a return of free speech for newspapers and broadcasters; a reliably impartial judiciary; and the bolstering of democratic institutions so they can return to normalcy.

The challenges will be endless as the demands will be immediate. America has not always risen to the challenge. President George W. Bush, for example, was wildly mistaken in 2003 by counting on Baghdad’s oil revenues to underwrite the post-Iraq War reconstruction effort in a non-Saddam world. As with Iraq, Venezuelan oil reserves hold the promise of providing enough rebuilding revenue for this traumatized country. Those oil resources will need to make it to market for the game plan to work.

Ultimately, however, what happens politically in Caracas will not stay in Caracas. A successful and relatively peaceful transition will reverberate throughout a region that is already going through a democratic transformation. Mexico, Brazil and Cuba have all recently experienced significant leadership changes, some more radical than others, but all dramatic.

As the Venezuelan drama unfolds, everyone hopes that the country’s people can be spared a violent downturn of events and move toward a future of being well-fed, democratically represented, free citizens.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.