When Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for his second term as Venezuela's president earlier this month, the ceremony took place at the country's Supreme Court—rather than, as is typical, in front of the National Assembly.
The change in venue was not merely an aesthetic choice.
Five days earlier, when the Assembly opened its new session, opposition leader Juan Guaidó stood in front of his colleagues and accused Maduro of being a "dictator" and "usurper" who had used a fraudulent election to claim another six-year term as the nation's chief executive.
In the days since Maduro's January 10 inauguration, things have moved quickly. The United States, Canada, and 17 Latin American countries signed a declaration refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro's government. Some have cut off diplomatic ties with Venezuela. Those official actions have bolstered unofficial efforts to oppose Maduro in the streets of Caracas and other cities, where people impoverished by the Venezuelan regime's socialist policies have clashed with the military, which (along with the courts) remains loyal to Maduro.
In the midst of huge protests Wednesday that marked the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that toppled a military dictatorship, Guaidó declared himself to be the interim president of Venezuela—a bold move that was quickly endorsed by President Donald Trump and other world leaders.
"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," the White House said Wednesday in a brief statement. An op-ed from Vice President Mike Pence ran Tuesday in The Wall Street Journal, promising American support for the protestors—though, notably, Pence stopped short of saying exactly what form that support would take—and in a video message from the White House, Pence called Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power" and encouraged Venezuelans to support Guaidó.
Clearly, a new phase in the long simmering Venezuelan crisis is beginning. Whether Maduro can cling to power likely depends on whether he can use the country's military to crush the current uprising—similar to what happened in 2017 when an anti-Maduro uprising was violently suppressed. Hopefully, the military will abandon Maduro. If it does not, the country may tip towards civil war.
Make no mistake: Maduro is a monster, and Venezuelans are right to want to remove him from power. He sought to continue the socialist policies of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, and has now brought those ideas to their inevitable conclusion. Chavez nationalized the Venezuelan oil companies and used the profits to fund a massive welfare state, but production declined (Venezuelan "peak oil" occurred in 1998, the year Chavez was elected) in the absence of competition and foreign investment. When oil revenues fell, threatening all aspects of the state-run economy, Chavez (who died in 2013) and Maduro printed money. When that didn't work, they instituted price controls. When inflation resulted, they closed off Venezuela to imported goods. Before long, what had once been the richest country in Latin America was reduced to a place where toilet paper is considered a luxury. An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have fled the country, turning the nation's collapse into a regional humanitarian crisis.
If today's events are indeed a turning point for Venezuela, then the United States' role in the coming weeks and months is to continue doing what Trump and Pence did today. America should stand up for the right of Venezuelans to determine the direction of their country. But ultimately it must be Venezuelans who decide what happens next.
In that regard, the Trump administration's response to the latest round of anti-Maduro uprisings has been admirable in its restraint. After all, it was Trump who suggested, in August 2017, that American military intervention could be used to "topple" the Maduro regime. In September 2018, White House officials met with Venezuelan ex-patriots to discuss the possibility of a U.S.-backed coup to overthrow Maduro.
Ironically, both incidents served to only tighten Maduro's grip on power, as he was able to point to U.S. machinations as the source of Venezuelans' problems and distract, at least temporarily, from his role in the country's misery. An American-backed military coup in the style of the ones that toppled governments elsewhere in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s would likely trigger endless internal conflict in Venezuela—and foment distrust towards whomever eventually replaces Maduro.
Open war would, of course, be even worse.
"There is no increase in the threat to U.S. security, which would be necessary to justify military action," Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, told Reason on Wednesday.
Even as the humanitarian crisis deepens and Maduro's repressive political dictatorship becomes more obvious, Bandow says, American leaders should resist the urge to engage in a Latin American version of the nation-building failures of the past two decades. Instead, America should play a supportive role and allow Venezuela's neighbors to handle the political, economic, and humanitarian problems.
That restraint will be tested if Maduro responds to Guaidó by unleashing the military against protesters—something that is already happening, according to some reports—or by arresting opposition leaders. Guaidó was arrested and held for two days by government intelligence forces last week. If something like that happens again, it would be easy for the Trump administration to use today's declaration that Guaidó is the legitimate leader of the country as the basis for direct action against the pro-Maduro military. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has already made that threat explicit.
It should not have to come to that. Venezuela is a resource rich country with the potential to pull itself out of a decade-plus tailspin if the socialist thinking of the Maduro regime is finally excised.
The United States also has an opportunity to show that it has learned a lesson from the decade-plus quagmire in the Middle East. Namely, that regime change is never as neat and tidy as it might appear at the outset, and that nation-building is best done by the people who will have to live there when the job is finished.