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Not so long ago, the days of Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela were numbered.
The authoritarian leader oversaw the country’s worst economic collapse in history and faced the brunt of US sanctions against a vital oil industry. Amid chronic food shortages, millions of Venezuelans have fled the country.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the legitimate head of state of Venezuela on the grounds that they believe Maduro rigged the 2018 election.
In January, Guaydo was the guest of honor at President Trump’s address on the Union. “This evening is a very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans,” Trump said of Guido, who received a standing ovation.
But these hopes and dreams have yet to come true.
Maduro remains entrenched in the presidential palace and under the control of the country. The Venezuelan military has ignored Guido’s calls for an uprising and, despite some shortcomings, continues to give decisive support to Maduro. Anti-government protests have ended.
Support for Guaidó fell in polls from more than 60% in February 2019 to 25.5% in May, according to Caracas-based firm Datanalisis. The poll found Maduro’s approval rate in May at around 13%.
The political opposition is divided between moderates who advocate negotiations and tough people who have promoted hostilities to oust Maduro.
This more militant strategy was agreed in May, when a small invading force of about 60 exiled Venezuelan soldiers, as well as two American mercenaries, landed on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast near Caracas. They were quickly captured or killed by Venezuelan troops loyal to Maduro.
“So it’s very sad for us. Now we have a very, very difficult situation,” said Angel Alvarado, a lawmaker with the opposition Justice One party.
The worsening of the situation, he said, is that the Maduro government, in a legal maneuver last month, replaced the leaders of the three main opposition parties with politicians who are friendly to the government. The victims include Justice First and Popular Will, led by Guaydo and former political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez. Alvarado claims that these new party bosses were paid to side.
All this happened after many years of government attacks on the opposition.
Alvarado says five opposition lawmakers have been jailed on falsified charges, including First Justice legislator Juan Requesens, who was detained last year in connection with the 2018 assassination attempt on Maduro by a drone armed with explosives. He said another 20 opposition lawmakers were living in exile and five others had gone underground to avoid arrest.
“First they persecute the leadership of our party. Then they try to divide us. And then they replace the leadership of our party with new ones who receive Maduro’s money,” Alvarado said in a telephone interview from Caracas.
The Venezuelan government ignored the NPR’s request for comment.
Jeff Ramsey, who tracks Venezuela through the Washington office’s think tank in Latin America, believes that instead of turning Venezuela into a one-party state, Maduro aims to cripple opposition parties but allow them to survive.
“Ultimately, it is useful for the regime to point to the existence of opposition politicians in Venezuela, because it allows them to say that they live in a democracy,” Ramsey said.
With the exception of the National Assembly, the ruling Socialists control all of Venezuela’s government agencies, including the election commission that Maduro formed with his allies last month. But now the main opposition parties are leaning toward boycotting this year’s legislative elections for fear of falsifying votes.
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In a conference call last week’s Washington diplomat’s bulletin, Carlos Vecchio, Guido’s envoy to the United States, said the 2018 presidential election, in which Maduro won a six-year term, was marred by irregularities. Referring to the forthcoming vote in Congress, he said: “Will this fraudulent election solve the Venezuelan problem? No! It will deepen the crisis.”
However, if the opposition boycotts the vote – which is scheduled to take place by the end of this year – Guaido will no longer be president of the legislature. He was appointed to this post last year, and this is the basis for his claim to be the legitimate head of state of Venezuela.
As a result, Ramsey says, “The international community will be at a crossroads where they will have to decide whether to continue to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.”
Ramsey says the only way out of the crisis in Venezuela is to hold free and fair elections. But several rounds of talks held by the Norwegian government did not reach a single breakthrough.
This left the opposition so frustrated that Guaydo’s office issued a statement questioning the decision of Norwegian envoys to return to Caracas this week to continue further talks.
Such intransigence from the Guaido team could only strengthen Maduro’s government, according to Caracas political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. “Is Norway an enemy?” he tweeted. “Absolutely amateur and childish approach.”
Despite months of bad news, Guaydo put on a bold face and tried to attract his followers to a public speech in Caracas last month. He acknowledged that they were worn out and disappointed, but insisted that one way or another, the opposition would defeat Maduro.
“They are not going to defeat us,” Guido said. “We’re still here.”