At dawn on April 30, Venezuelan opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López appeared at a military base in Caracas and called on citizens and the military to begin the “final phase” of ousting President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition leaders had called on citizens to rise against the government before, but their decision to appeal directly to the military was seen as a game-changer. By sunset that same day, however, López and his family had sought refuge in the Spanish embassy and Guaidó had gone silent for several hours. It was all but certain that the attempted uprising had failed.
What happened? Some have suggested that Guaidó, who has mounted a direct challenge to Maduro’s presidency since January, did not manage to project enough of a sense of confidence and inevitability for the uprising to gather momentum. Others have claimed that, forced by rumors that the government was going to issue an arrest warrant, Guaidó had jumped the gun and acted a day earlier than he and several military leaders had agreed on, spooking his allies in the armed forces. The truth, however, is more complex.
In order to get Maduro to step down and call for free and fair elections, Venezuela’s opposition must break up the military-civilian alliance that is keeping him in power. Getting there will require, first, that the military no longer benefits from supporting Maduro. With the support of international allies such as the United States, Guaidó has already made some progress on this front. Yet the military also needs credible guarantees that it won’t be prosecuted or penalized under a new regime—something that the opposition has failed to provide so far. Absent such a guarantee, it is unlikely that the military will turn on Venezuela’s dictator.
Transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy are by nature very uncertain. They require some kind of
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