Tim Padgett (@timpadgett2) is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN.
So Juan Guaidó is now 0-for-3 in his attempts to incite a regime-changing military uprising in Venezuela.
The opposition leader had hoped to get the armed forces to back him in January, when he declared himself (rightfully so) Venezuela's constitutionally legitimate president. And again in February, when he tried to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela from Colombia.
And again on Tuesday, when he stood with a handful of rebel soldiers at a Caracas airbase and summoned the rest of los militares to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro — who has trashed Venezuela's democracy and once oil-rich economy, creating the worst humanitarian crisis in modern South American history.
Each time Guaidó vastly overestimated — and vastly oversold — the desire of the army brass to tip their red berets in his direction. So did his Washington backers, like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who on Tuesday kept honking excited tweets like: "Report says even more military units are joining effort of Interim President @jguaido in #Caracas #Venezuela."
Except they weren't. Some rank-and-file troops did defect, as they have in previous instances, and they did fire bullets at Maduro forces along with the rocks the street protesters threw. But not whole units — and certainly not the chiefs who command those units, who matched Rubio tweet for tweet with declarations of loyalty to Maduro.
None of that means Tuesday's unrest didn't rattle the regime — or that it didn't create new cracks in the high command's allegiance to Maduro. I'm sure it did.
But that's precisely the point. Far more often than not, when you're trying to topple a dictatorship — whether it's Augusto Pinochet's regime in Chile a generation ago or Omar al-Bashir's in Sudan a month ago — the job is to keep creating and exploiting cracks in the wall. The job is not to bring the whole wall down in one fell, heroic swoop — because every time that fails, as it usually does, it sets you back.
Which is why Tuesday now looks to most of the world like Guaidó's third strike instead of another crack in Maduro's wall.
That's precisely what Rubio, President Trump and the rest of the Washington committee that claims to support Guaidó's movement don't get — and don't seem to want to get. That was obvious when the Trump administration made Guaidó's lost battle sound like a lost war.
"If [Tuesday's] effort fails," said Trump's national security adviser John Bolton, "[Venezuela] will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives."
That's not exactly an inspiring postgame pep talk. But it was, of course, the pre-scripted cue to beat the U.S. military drum again. Florida Sen. Rick Scott said it was time for American troops "to defend freedom and democracy... in our hemisphere." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted, "[U.S.] military action is possible [in Venezuela], if that's what's required."
They seemed to insinuate it is now required. It's not — and not just because it could create an Iraq-style quagmire.
Even if Tuesday's effort to bring down the regime failed, Bolton got it wrong when he suggested that Venezuelans' larger effort to oust Maduro has failed. Tuesday actually showed that the effort is still alive — and should be kept alive until, to cite one scenario, U.S. and international economic sanctions bankrupt the regime and make the military bosses reconsider their Maduro marriage. Granted, a lot of those colonels and generals are allegedly rich thanks to drug trafficking. But even they have tipping points that should make Guaidó's offers of amnesty to security forces that abandon Maduro look more attractive.
In the meantime, the Trump administration's threats simply undermine Guaidó's leverage with the ruling socialists by making his opposition movement feel like a yanqui-run show. It also alienates the unusual Latin American and international coalition his movement has managed to galvanize against Maduro — which is critical to negotiate the military's change of heart.
The problem is that overthrowing autocracies is a long-haul mission. But Guaidó is having to work with U.S. foreign policymakers who envision it as a swashbuckling, one-fell-swoop act of Monroe Doctrine heroism. One that meets the cable news cycle deadline — if not the 2020 election deadline.
And they believe their short-haul, reverse-domino-theory approach will bring down the regimes not just in Venezuela but in Cuba and Nicaragua, too. But so far they're 0-for-3.
Check out WLRN's Latin America Report for more coverage on the region.