- - Friday, January 25, 2019

This has been a momentous month for Venezuela. After years of suffering the usurpation of dictator Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan public rallied behind interim President Juan Guaido to demand the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.

On Wednesday, the people marked the national holiday that commemorates the departure of an earlier dictator, Marcos Perez Jimenez, by taking to the streets in the tens of thousands to demand the departure of the despised autocrat. Moreover, a phalanx of governments — including Canada, the United States, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina and Chile — not to mention Britain, Denmark, Portugal and Kosovo, have now recognized Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.

Luis Amalgro, head of the Organization of American States, has also recognized Mr. Guaido as the president of Venezuela, while Spain and France have withdrawn support for Mr. Maduro.

This would seem to mark an end to the tyrant Nicolas Maduro, who reduced his country from its one-time position as a prosperous founding member of the OPEC petroleum cartel to a state of abject poverty and ubiquitous malnutrition. When the public took to the streets in outrage he sent out snipers to shoot the protesters, when elections went against him he imprisoned opposition leaders and generated his own rigged pseudo-electoral process. Mr. Maduro is revealed as illegitimate, ineffective and unrecognized by most of the region’s political powers.

The matter is not so simple. While Mr. Maduro was putting his country into a death spiral of poverty and repression, he was also building up an antidemocratic power base.

He purged the armed forces of anyone suspected of having the courage and integrity to oppose him, while he successfully cultivated support from toxic leaders, such as Cuban despot Miguel Diaz-Canel, Russian strong man Vladimir Putin, Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian theocrat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Chinese overlord Xi Jinping, all of whom have come out in support of his continued rule, as have apologists such as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez-Obrador and Uruguayan head of state Tabare Vasquez, Nicaraguan caudillo Daniel Ortega and Bolivian ruler Evo Morales.

Mr. Maduro’s lackeys in the military have spoken out against Mr. Guaido and in support of their master, who is gambling that he can bludgeon his way through the current crisis.

The events of this month were triggered by the end of Mr. Maduro’s first term, which was itself the product of a tainted election. Mr. Maduro responded by usurping a second term. The one remaining pole of opposition to Mr. Maduro within Venezuela, the National Assembly was elected in 2015 in a rebuke to Mr. Maduro, who responded by appointing an alternative legislature to rubber stamp his actions.

Early this month, the Assembly elevated the young and energetic Juan Guaido from among its ranks as its leader. In response to Mr. Maduro’s usurpation, Mr. Guaido invoked emergency provisions of the constitution to declare himself interim leader, and to call for a new round of elections.

In a puzzling move, Mr. Maduro’s lackey’s briefly detained and tortured Mr. Guaido before releasing him. It appears Mr. Maduro calculated that imprisoning Mr. Guaido would make it impossible for his apologists in democratic countries such as Mexico to continue to protect him from concerted international action. Wednesday’s demonstrations were met with violence from the government, and we now see a confrontation between the soft power of public protest, moral suasion, and international opinion and the truncheons and bullets of a police state.

While the police state would seem to have the edge, this is only true if it continues to persuade the armed forces that having backed Mr. Maduro will not make them pariahs in the future, that Venezuela will continue to be able to find countries to trade with, for no country in the Americas is economically self-sufficient absent trade with its neighbors, and that Venezuela’s neighbors will not intervene directly to restore order.

The widespread recognition of Mr. Guaido as interim president is an extremely positive sign, as is the continued courage of the Venezuelan people, who after years of firings, beatings, imprisonment and shootings of government opponents, were still ready to throng the streets in public expressions of support for an end to the dictatorship.

Faced with previous challenges to his grasp on power, Mr. Maduro has called for “dialogue” while he continued to round up his opponents and impose his rule. With the help of Mr. Lopez-Obrador and others he is attempting to repeat this tired trope yet again. But continued tyranny in Venezuela has meant continued bloodshed.

The time for talk is over, the moment for Mr. Maduro’s apologists to withdraw their support for his oppression of our brothers and sisters in Venezuela is at hand. The hour has come for free and fair elections in Venezuela, with security guaranteed by the forces of the international community.

John Londregan is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

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