(Bloomberg) — When the U.S. rushed to endorse a military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002, it ended up with egg on its face. The self-styled leader of a “Bolivarian” revolution was back in office within three days — and more anti-American than ever.
The decision by Washington to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the nation’s legitimate president could see a repeat, if Chavez-heir Nicolas Maduro should cling onto power. But it takes place in a very different geopolitical climate, one where failure risks global repercussions.
Venezuela’s economy is in a tailspin, prompting millions to flee to neighboring states that have backed the U.S. in refusing to recognize Maduro’s 2018 re-election, widely seen as fraudulent. The coup against Chavez was condemned by many Latin American governments as anti-democratic. Now it’s the military that’s keeping an authoritarian Maduro in power, in the face of much stronger domestic and regional opposition.
Yet the current stand-off is also freighted with great-power rivalry — between China, Russia and the U.S. — that barely existed in Venezuela 16 years ago. That’s providing Maduro with a reservoir of international support in standing up to Washington that Chavez didn’t enjoy. It also creates risks for the country’s long-term stability, should these powerful external players dig in to protect their loans, investments and political interests.
A wider ideological split on whether to prioritize democracy or sovereignty has also been added to traditional left-right divisions over what to do about Venezuela. That has joined Turkey to Maduro’s camp of authoritarian backers, determined to avoid new precedents for pro-democracy uprisings that could one day threaten their own positions.
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