Donald Trump walks to a meeting with Juan Guaido at the White House in Washington. File/AP
For 16 months, Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido has presented himself as a standard-bearer of democracy in South America. Leading mass protests and rallying the international community, the charismatic politician held out the promise of peacefully ousting Nicolas Maduro and making way for new elections.
But a failed military incursion this week that included at least two US mercenaries threatens to tarnish that image. At issue is how much Guaido knew about the coordinated raids on Sunday and Monday that were quickly dismantled by Venezuelan security forces.
In an interview with CNN en Espanol, J.J. Rendon, a colourful Venezuelan campaign adviser and opposition strategist, said that on Oct. 16, 2019, Guaido had signed a preliminary contract with Silvercorp USA, the Melbourne, Fla., security firm that helped coordinate the raid.
But according to Rendon, within a month the politician had lost interest in the effort.
The plan was bold. According to a seven-page contract published by The Washington Post, Silvercorp USA was going to charge $212.9 million for its services “backed/secured by Venezuelan barrels of oil.”
While not stated in the contract — which was signed by Guaido, Rendon and Silvercorp CEO Jordan Goudreau, among others — the team was going to capture an airport, seize Maduro and his allies and spirit them out of the country.
Rendon said the contract was part of a larger 42-page proposal that he described as an “exploration” into the idea of “capturing members of the regime that have outstanding arrest warrants and turning them over to justice.”
The proposal, he said, was just one of several overt and covert actions that the opposition has studied as it tries to dislodge Maduro, who has been in power since 2013.
“It was never given a green light,” Rendon said of the deal.
The Washington Post said it had seen a video where Guaido appears to consent to Goudreau’s plans. Even so, the politician said this week that he was not involved and is “on the side of the constitution.”
A Venezuelan source who was aware of the operation and asked to remain anonymous told el Nuevo Herald that Guaido was aware of the plans but kept delaying the raid.
On May 1, The Associated Press revealed the broad outlines of the plan that was being promoted by Goudreau, a former Green Beret. Even so, the frustration level was so high among the Venezuelan soldiers who were the bulk of the operation that they pushed ahead anyway, the source said.
“They were hopeful that they might succeed,” he explained. “They had spent a year eating garbage on the streets of Colombia, being persecuted by Colombia. ... People were hungry and the project was on life support.”
The genesis of this week’s actions can be traced back to February 2019, when Guaido called on the Venezuelan military to desert and join him in the Colombian border town of Cucuta.
Hundreds of soldiers and police heeded the call, and many had illusions that they would be marching back home as part of a liberation force. That never happened, and about 800 police and military officials and their families were left stranded in Colombia.
Over the ensuing months, there were multiple attempts to organise them into some sort of fighting force. In April 2019, Guaido led a brief — but failed — military uprising inside Venezuela. Unlike this week’s affair, however, that attempt seemed to be homegrown.
On Thursday, Venezuelan Communication Minister Jorge Rodriguez said security forces had arrested 23 people, including two Americans, involved in the raids that took place on Sunday and Monday. At least 10 mercenaries were also reportedly killed.
Rodriguez blamed President Donald Trump and Guaido for backing the plan, and Maduro has ordered diplomats to make their case against Washington at the U.N. Security Council.
The US State Department has denied any “direct” involvement, and there are reports that law enforcement is now investigating Goudreau and his company.Ronal Rodriguez, the director of the Venezuelan Observatory at Colombia’s Rosario University, said the failed military incursion could be a deadly blow to Guaido’s public image.
“Up until now, they’ve always presented themselves as a democratic opposition,” Ronal Rodriguez said of Guaido and his followers. “If you’re trying to pursue a democratic change, you cannot resort to these types of actions. ... Not everything is acceptable in order to get rid of Nicolas Maduro.”
More than 50 nations, including the United States, recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, but this action exposes his backers to accusations of hypocrisy. “The nations who supported him might have to think twice about it,” he said.
The raid is particularly difficult for one of Guaido’s staunchest allies, Colombia. According to the interrogations of the US mercenaries broadcast by Venezuela’s state-run media, the invasion force was training in the Guajira, in northern Colombia, along the border with Venezuela.
“If the Colombian government knew about it and didn’t say anything, then their sin was omission,” Ronal Rodriguez said. “If they didn’t know about it, then the Venezuelan opposition has been walking all over them. ... Either way, the Colombian state has been damaged, not just in the eyes of Venezuela but in the eyes of the world.”
The failed coup has been a propaganda coup for Maduro. Before the incursion grabbed national and international headlines, he was being pounded by negative news: bloody prison uprisings, increased hunger, worries about the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, state-controlled television is broadcasting clips of the interrogation of the US mercenaries, where they have named Trump and Guaido as backers of the plan.
Maduro has often accused the US and Colombia of plotting against him. In December 2018, he claimed that 734 Colombian and Venezuelan “mercenaries” were training in northern Colombia to prepare for military incursions and “false flag” attacks.
He also said that “special forces” troops were training at Eglin Air Force Base in northern Florida to carry out “surgical strikes” aimed at Venezuelan naval and air force bases.
This week’s attempted invasion has historical parallels. In 1899, Cipriano Castro led a group of 60 Venezuelan mercenaries from the Colombian border to overthrow the Ignacio Andrade administration. By the time they successfully marched on Caracas, the rebel army had swollen to more than 2,000 followers.
“In the past there has been this dynamic that has allowed a small group of people to conquer the country,” Ronal Rodriguez said. “And there are military people, and people in the opposition, who still think that’s feasible and possible.”
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