Week That Was from Latin America Photo Gallery

In this Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019 photo, anti-government protesters cheer after Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declared himself interim president of the South American country until new elections can be called, at a rally demanding the resignation of Nicolas Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela. (AP Photo/Boris Vergara)

Things are likely to get worse in Venezuela before they get better, but the possibilities range from ongoing civil unrest to a potentially messy coup to a full-blown proxy war between the United States and Russia — and maybe even China.

Devastating global conflicts have started over less, but suffice it to say that Venezuela’s political future is not worth launching World War III. And while that outcome remains highly unlikely, it’s increasingly not completely unthinkable.

This week, President Trump’s administration threw its support behind a man named Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s effectively powerless but democratically elected legislature who declared himself interim president on Wednesday.

That’s notable because the massively unpopular socialist leader Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a new six-year term as president earlier this month.

It’s not often that the United States openly backs a foreign leader trying to effectively seize power from an elected official, even one whose most recent election win was illegitimate by any reasonable interpretation of free and fair democracy.

So this is a big deal.

Mr. Maduro, as might be expected, is not pleased. “I will never resign,” he said Thursday after speaking by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently warned the United States not to interfere in Venezuela. Mr. Putin, according to Mr. Maduro, had offered his support “now more than ever.”

And so far, Mr. Maduro seems to hold most of the remaining levers of political power in Venezuela, including his allies in top military positions. Along with Russia’s backing, he has official support from a grab bag of America’s frenemies and enemies including China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey.

Countries officially backing Mr. Guaido — aside from the United States — include Canada, Brazil, Peru, Chile, Colombia and Argentina.

Over the course of the past week, the United States made the wise decision to pull most of its diplomatic staff out of Venezuela. Safety must be the top priority for those who remain. Because again, this is likely to get worse before it gets better.

On the one hand, Mr. Maduro has to go. His effectively uncontested re-election solidified his status as a dictator in all but name, and he has been a particularly ineffectual one at that.

Venezuelans face starvation, violence and shortages of basic necessities. Millions have fled to neighboring countries over the past few months. The pitiful state of the nation’s economy, which has been in free fall for years, would be laughable were it not such a tragedy for ordinary Venezuelans.

Long-term peace and prosperity in Venezuela won’t be possible with Mr. Maduro in charge.

But neither would a violent takeover be acceptable. Coups and infighting in Latin America have a troubling historic tendency to spill over into civil wars and decades of bloody political violence — sometimes with the explicit or implicit support of the United States.

The last part is particularly concerning. The United States has a long and not proud history of meddling in Latin American politics, with sometimes bad results.

In fact, Mr. Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez have frequently used that history of intervention to undermine the broader concept of American-style democracy in Venezuela and elsewhere. This is a good chance to learn from our mistakes.

President Trump made a bold and welcome choice in officially backing Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Our continued support, however, must demand a peaceful and democratic transition of power.

Mr. Guaido and top officials in Mr. Maduro’s regime have shown a willingness to open a dialogue about how to move forward. Similar efforts in the past haven’t been fruitful, but the current situation is unprecedented.

In the meantime, the United States should use the lightest touch possible to continue pushing for change.

Venezuela’s people have suffered for years under an inept and power-hungry ruler. Venezuela’s people also have the power to right the situation and restore democracy and the rule of law. With our support, we ought to let them.

Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier. He previously worked in Bogota, Colombia.