A year on, Guaido’s image in trouble as opposition faces cracks

Where does Venezuela’s opposition stand a year after Juan Guaido declared himself interim president?

It was a tense scene earlier this month when Venezuela opposition members, led by Juan Guaido, attempted to climb the fence outside the country’s National Assembly after being barred entrance by security forces.

The scene offered a dramatically different picture of the opposition leader, who a year ago rallied tens of thousands as he invoked the country’s constitution to declare himself interim president, receiving the almost immediate support of the United States and dozens of other Western countries.

But a year later, President Nicolas Maduro appears to have an even tighter grip on his control as the opposition continues to fracture. And Guaido, struggling to maintain support at home amid the country’s deepening economic crisis, faces more challenges ahead, analysts say. 

“The opposition has lost its influence in the country,” said Ronal Rodriguez, a professor and researcher at the Venezuelan Observatory, a think-tank at the University of Rosario in Colombia. 

“The situation has changed, and people have started to leave the politics behind, and have instead focused on the day-to-day problems,” he told Al Jazeera. “The passion and enthusiasm that Guaido awoke has started to fade.”

Guaido: A new ‘interim president’

Tensions in Venezuela escalated after Maduro was in for a second term on January 10, following elections deemed fraudulent by his opponents and much of the international community.

Days later, on January 23, at a massive rally in Caracas, Guaido declared himself acting president until new elections were held.

He established a way forward with three main goals: “the end of usurpation, a transitional government, and free elections.”

The US, Canada, and 14 Latin American countries backed his interim presidency, while hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to show their support for the then-35-year-old engineer. Maduro labelled the move an attempted “coup”.

“That was a big moment for us,” said Laura Hidalgo, a retired professor and opposition supporter in Venezuela.

“A hope that we thought lost came back again, that was my first feeling with a huge faith that change was indeed possible,” she told Al Jazeera.

Eventually, more than 50 countries recognised Guaido as the country’s rightful leader. But Maduro maintained the support of China, Cuba, Turkey and Russia, among other countries, as well as most of Venezuela’s institutions, including the military. 

On January 28, Washington imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA and handed control of its US bank accounts to Guaido.

“The sanctions were aimed at the drowning of the government,” said Carlos Pina, a Venezuelan analyst. 

“Although it partially weakened it, these measures did not achieve its main task,” Pina told Al Jazeera. 

“Maduro managed to find other ways to obtain financial resources, such as the use of mining, specifically the extraction of gold,” he added. “The support of countries like Russia or Turkey, also allowed his administration to circumvent the effect of the sanctions.” 

Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela’s opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela [Fernando Llano/AP] 

Guaido’s image suffers blows

Attempting to address the needs of the country, Guaido made bringing humanitarian aid a priority.  

In 2016, the National Assembly declared a humanitarian crisis, and requested the government of Maduro to provide essential medicines and medical supplies. The government denied the claim saying that those arguments were only used to justify foreign intervention.

In early February 2019, trucks carrying food and medical supplies from the US arrived at the borders of Brazil and Colombia. 

“The humanitarian aid will enter to Venezuela,” Guaido said on February 12.

But Maduro slammed what he called “fake humanitarian aid”, as a plot for US “military invasion”.

Maduro’s government ordered the closure of land frontiers with Brazil and Colombia, as well as sea and air links with Curacao in the Caribbean.

Defying a ban on leaving the country, Guaido attended on February 22 a Venezuelan aid concert inside Colombia organised by Richard Branson.

Juan Guaido
Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido, during the ‘Venezuela Aid Live’ concert [File: Elyxandro Cegarra/Getty Images]

The next day, clashes broke out Venezuela’s border with Brazil and Colombia and only one truck was able to deliver aid.

The unrest left at least four dead, and more than 200 injured.

Analysts say failed attempt at bringing humanitarian aid to the country, and later to promote a change to the government, has contributed to problems Guaido and the opposition face today. 

“One of the main problems with Guaido and his campaign was the level of expectation it generated,” said Jose Meza, a Venezuelan journalist and analyst. “They didn’t properly assess what could realistically be achieved with the resources they had, while Maduro was able to manage all the difficulties that were raised.”

Months after the aid attempts, part of Guaido’s team was accused of irregularities in the handling of funds destined for the failed operation.

According to Rodriguez, this was another major blow.

“On a subject as sensitive as humanitarian aid, this was a strong blow to [Guaido’s] image,” Rodriguez said. 

“It generated mistrust among some opposition lawmakers, some of which ended up switching sides with the government, while it also generated questions among those who supported them,” he added. “Many fear that the resources given will be lost in the pockets of some opposition lawmakers, and later used for personal gains.”

Venezuela - Humanitarian aid
Demonstrators gather after clashing with the Bolivarian National Guard near the border with Colombia [File: Rodrigo Abd/AP]

Uprising attempt

Guaido’s image took another hit a month later. 

On April 30, in one of the boldest moves from the opposition, Guaido released a video flanked by soldiers in the heart of Caracas, saying an uprising was under way.

“The time is now,” Guaido said. “We are going to achieve freedom and democracy in Venezuela,” he added, urging supporters to take to the streets.

Security forces supporting him had released a political prisoner, Leopoldo Lopez. Police forces stood at Guaido’s side as others joined marches to support the protesters.

In the streets, anti-government demonstrators clashed with forces loyal to the Maduro amid reports of live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas.

At least five people were killed and dozens more injured. 

The military publicly pledged its loyalty to Maduro. About two dozen rebel soldiers sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy.

“Guaido’s policy with the armed forces has not only been wrong but disastrous,” said Sebastiana Barraez, a journalist and an expert on Venezuela’s military forces. 

“And one of his most critical mistakes was to never appoint a military chief to represent him, and instead he let civilians handle the institution in the wrong way,” she told Al Jazeera. “An example of mismanagement can be seen with many of the soldiers who defected, several of them lost their careers, and were left with serious economic problems.”

Pro-Guaido police officers look on around Altamira distributor on April 30, 2019, in Caracas [File: Carolain Caraballo/Getty Images] 

Talks open but no progress

Delegations from rival sides met face-to-face in Oslo for the first time in late May for talks under Norwegian mediation. 

The meetings ended with only a commitment to continue talking.

On July 5, a UN Human Rights Council report stated that nearly 7,000 people had been killed in 18 months of security force operations.

In response, Trump ordered a freeze in all Venezuelan assets. Maduro, meanwhile, cancelled a new round of talks.

“During the time when the opposition seemed to have strengthened both internally and externally, the government chose to force a dialogue,” Pina said. “But, over the months, it was shown that the government was trying to save time while its rivals were worn out and did not achieve concrete results. “

By November 2019, Guaido had ruled out dialogue with Maduro and his forces, saying the negotiations were dead three months prior.

“They killed it, they ran away,” Guaido said in a press conference in the capital Caracas.

Guaido’s popularity declines

On November 16, about 5,000 Guaido supporters demonstrated against Maduro in the opposition’s biggest rally since May, but the turnout was far lower than expected.

“I honestly feel disappointed with the politics in my country,” said Maria*, a mother and professional from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela. 

“All is rigged, there is always a trap, there is always something abnormal,” she told Al Jazeera. “I much prefer to focus on my son and my family, than to be following politics.”

That sentiment appeared to echo throughout the country and region, where millions had fled. 

Two national assemblies

Guaido faced another test of his grip on any power in early January. 

An election in the National Assembly was disrupted on January 5.

Guaido was prevented by security forces from entering the building, and his rival Luis Parra, another opposition member, was sworn-in as the new speaker of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

The event resulted in two claims for the presidency of the National Assembly, one by Parra and one by Guaido.

Parra’s election was recognised by Maduro’s administration, but disputed by the opposition, arguing that he didn’t have a quorum and no votes were counted.

Separately, Guaido and other legislators held their own elections in a newspaper office. Guaido was re-elected with 100 of 167 votes. Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency relies on him being the head of congress. 

Asked about his plans in the National Assembly, Parra said: “We are normalising things, we have to clean the house first.”

Meanwhile, Guaido declared Parra a “traitor”, and said he will continue working as the legislative body’s head.

Juan Guaido
Guaido climb on the fence of Venezuela’s National Assembly building in Caracas [File: Manaure Quintero/Reuters]

Parra was formerly a member of the opposition party Justice First, but was expelled from the party on December 20 due to corruption allegations. 

According to Rodriguez, this affected the opposition, “it did show an opposition that was fractured and weakened.”

Maduro labelled the election of Parra “a rebellion from within the Assembly”, claiming that the country “rejected Juan Guaido”.

Internationally only Russia openly supported the elections, China and Turkey did not voice an opinion, while Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina protested the move.

“There is a new division that became really evident in the opposition,” said Juan Romero, a member of Venezuela’s PSUV party in the state of Zulia.

“A new battlefield has started, with both leaders trying to keep their grip to power, and more importantly the control of the millions of dollars of aid, coming from the US,” he told Al Jazeera. 

Meanwhile, Guaido turned his attention to where he maintained support. He travelled to Colombia, and then to Europe where he called on his supporters to put more pressure on Maduro through additional sanctions. He has vowed to try to return to Venezuela after finishing the European tour, but it remains unclear if he will be allowed back in the country without facing arrest. 

“Yes I took a risk to leave … my return will be risky,” he told reporters in Brussels. 

What’s next?

For now, Guaido appears table to hold on to his interim presidency – at least for now. 

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for later this year, and analysts say Guaido needs to use the year to execute any plan to maintain relevance in the country. 

“This is the last year with the current National Assembly, with his team, he will have to come up with some strategy, and somehow disassemble the parallel leadership that has been imposed,” Meza said. 

Meanwhile, amid political and economic impasse, more than four million people have left the country.

“What’s coming is the exacerbation of the migratory issue, in moments when the xenophobia has started to worsen in the neighbouring countries,” Rodriguez said.

“[Politically,] the opposition knows that unless something big happens, the National Assembly could end falling in the hands of the government,” he added. “This will allow them to pass the necessary legislation for loans, and the acquisition of debts that was previously locked, this could end fueling the support of Russia and China to the government.”

Maduro’s government still faces also challenges ahead with looming sanctions from the US, while he still holds support from different sectors across the country.

“As far as I’m concerned I know who my president is and where my loyalty lies,” Daxiq Mosqueda, from the Caracas neighbourhood 23 de Enero, told Al Jazeera.

Separately in an interview with the Washington Post, Maduro said he is in control of his country, but called for direct negotiations with the US aimed at “ending their confrontational relationship”.

Nicolas Maduro
Maduro’s government still faces challenges ahead with looming sanctions from the US [Carolina Cabral/Getty Images]

Regarding the economy, Venezuela’s bolivar is also now the world’s most devalued currency, the inflation rate is around 13,476 percent, and while the economic crisis remains, the country is also going through a process of “dollarisation”.

Physical dollars now account for more than half of all retail transactions. But salaries and pensions are still paid in the local currency, Bolivares, so for many Venezuelans, this means further marginalisation.

“I’m a senior citizen, I have never handled dollars, so I’m in the clouds when they give me prices in foreign currencies,” said Dona Elisa, from the neighbourhood of Petare in Caracas, told Al Jazeera.

But, despite the challenges, many still hope that a change can take place.

“Since I left Venezuela [in 2015,] I have in mind this is transitory, I don’t want to die outside my country,” Rebeca Castellanos, a Venezuelan professor in Ecuador told Al Jazeera.

“This situation for Guaido was never expected to be easy, this is not a normal kind of government, many people can criticise him, but they don’t understand his position.”

“But I don’t lose my hope, once things change, once the government leaves, I will go back to my country.”

*Name has been changed to protect the individual’s identity. 

Source: Al Jazeera