Who Is Venezuela’s Legitimate Leader? A Messy Dispute, Explained
Venezuela’s crisis has raised questions that could determine the country’s future — and that a far-off news reader could be forgiven for finding confusing.
Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader, has declared that President Nicolás Maduro is illegitimate and has asserted himself as Venezuela’s interim president.
So who is the legitimate leader, how can we tell and who gets to decide?
The United States and several countries in Latin America and Europe have recognized Mr. Guaidó as the rightful leader, and he has called on the military to withdraw its support for Mr. Maduro.
But would elevating Mr. Guaidó constitute a democratic transition or a coup?
The answers to these questions, though urgently important, are not at all straightforward. Here is some help in trying to think them through.
Who is more legitimate, Mr. Maduro or Mr. Guaidó?
There is no one litmus test for political legitimacy, which can come from a few different sources. Both Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó have debatable claims to legitimacy, which is part of what makes this so messy.
Calling a leader “legitimate” does not mean that he or she is popular, successful or morally upstanding. It simply means that citizens, political elites and foreign governments recognize the leader’s rightful authority.
So when a leader takes power and is initially treated as legitimate — and Mr. Maduro was generally accepted when he took office in 2013 — it’s very difficult for him or her to lose it.
But Mr. Maduro has seen his sources of legitimacy weaken.
Protesters filled the streets of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, last week to denounce him as illegitimate. Still, even 300,000 protesters would constitute only about 1 percent of the population. Mr. Maduro is thought to retain some support, particularly among the poor.
Many of Venezuela’s neighbors have dropped their recognition of Mr. Maduro, as have the United States and Britain, Canada, France, Germany and Spain, among other nations. If Mr. Maduro cannot represent himself as legitimate abroad, then he will look less legitimate at home, which invites citizens and political officials to reject him as well.
The weakest point in Mr. Maduro’s popular legitimacy may be his 2018 re-election victory, which was widely disputed amid fraud allegations that suggest he might not actually have the popular support to act as president.
But plenty of world leaders steal elections and are still treated by their citizens, however grudgingly, as legitimate.
So whether or not the allegations of a rigged election render Mr. Maduro illegitimate is not ultimately up to election monitors. It’s up to Venezuelan citizens and political officials, who collectively confer legitimacy on Mr. Maduro by continuing to treat him as president — or not.
Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy has another weak point: the political institutions that hold him in power. After the opposition won the legislature in 2015, Mr. Maduro’s allies stacked the Supreme Court with loyalists. In 2017, Mr. Maduro created a second legislature, which was filled with loyalists in elections widely condemned as fraudulent. The new, loyalist-controlled legislature then stripped the opposition-controlled legislature of its powers.
If Venezuelan citizens and political elites come to treat those Maduro-allied institutions as illegitimate, then his own legitimacy suffers.
Mr. Guaidó’s claims to legitimacy are imperfect as well.
He has argued that Mr. Maduro’s disputed re-election victory left the presidency technically empty, triggering a rule that allows for Mr. Guaidó, as head of the National Assembly, to be sworn in as interim leader.
That only makes Mr. Guaidó legitimate if he can convince enough citizens, political elites and foreign governments to treat him as such.
It’s not the world’s easiest sell. Mr. Guaidó’s claim derives from a creative interpretation of a constitutional provision, rather than from popular will or the due process of the law. It’s mostly a claim about the weakness of Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy rather than the strength of his own.
Mr. Guaidó’s apparent hope is that he can rally enough protesters — and win over enough political elites and foreign governments — to convince the country’s military, or even Mr. Maduro’s own government, that they will all be better off installing Mr. Guaidó.
That is why Mr. Guaidó is so focused on the issue of legitimacy. Not as a way to appeal to the democratic ideals of Venezuelan generals and elites. But as a way to convince those power brokers that, if they put him in office, he would be accepted at home and abroad — and finally return stability.
Would Mr. Guaidó taking power constitute a coup?
In practice, the answer largely depends on whether or not Venezuelans and foreign governments choose to see Mr. Guaidó’s ascent as legitimate.
Think about the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which was widely accepted as a legitimate change of government. Though protesters initiated the movement calling for President Hosni Mubarak to step down, it was the generals who removed him and installed themselves as interim leaders.
Coup leaders, who tend to strike amid unrest, almost always claim to be serving the will of the people. That doesn’t make Egypt’s generals wrong about having popular support. But it exposes an uncomfortable truth: the line between coups and revolutions is often a matter of perception.
This doesn’t make the distinction meaningless, just subjective, determined by whether citizens and governments see the change in power as reflecting their wishes.
If Venezuelans believe that Mr. Guaidó does not have a popular mandate to take power, his installation would be seen as subverting popular will and therefore a coup.
But if they believe Mr. Guaidó has a popular mandate, then even if he is installed by a handful of generals, his ascent would likely be seen as reflecting popular will and therefore legitimate.
If that feels like a low bar for legitimizing a coup, then Mr. Maduro has only himself to blame.
If Venezuela’s elections were seen as free and fair, then that would be the only legitimate way to change the government. It’s only because their legitimacy has been widely questioned in recent years that Mr. Guaidó and his foreign backers can claim that forcing out Mr. Maduro would serve democracy.
Does the United States recognizing Mr. Guaidó constitute a coup?
Countries will sometimes revoke their recognition of a leader who loses an election but refuses to step down. Or a leader who loses the ability to govern. After Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian leader, massacred protesters and lost control of much of the military, many foreign leaders declared him no longer legitimate.
This sort of revocation is usually couched as reflecting the will of the people. But it is often also intended to help push that leader out.
It’s a signal to the leader and his or her supporters: If you stay in office, we won’t deal with you, making it harder for you to rule. It’s also a signal to the country’s citizens, political elites and its military: If you push out this leader, we won’t object.
If that helps to take down a despot who is widely seen as illegitimate and helps create the conditions for democracy, it can serve legitimate democratic rule. But if it promotes American interests at the cost of popular will — as the United States did in supporting coups in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973 — then it is tantamount to participating in an illegitimate coup.
Venezuela is a difficult case because Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy is contested within his country. If you see him as illegitimate, then the American policy seems to advance Venezuelans’ democratic rights to elect their own leader. If you see him as still legitimate, then the United States is arguably subverting Venezuelan democracy.
The Trump administration’s record hurts its claims to be acting in support of Venezuelan democracy. It has been so vehement in its opposition to Mr. Maduro’s government, and so bellicose about supporting regime change in Venezuela and elsewhere, that its motives are not seen as particularly benign or democratic.
And the United States has a long history of encouraging or conducting coups in Latin America.
This does not mean that any political transition endorsed by the Trump administration is necessarily a coup. Nor does it make Mr. Guaidó an American puppet.
But keep in mind that the legitimacy of any transition is a matter of perception, and that perceptions in Venezuela right now are divided. The Trump administration’s eagerness to remove Mr. Maduro could hurt the legitimacy of any new Venezuelan government, regardless of how it comes about.