When Juan Guaidó burst on to Venezuela’s political stage in January, declaring himself interim president in front of thousands of cheering supporters and securing the backing of the US and some 50 other countries, it seemed like the opposition had finally found its man.
After years of internal squabbling, here was a leader who galvanised opposition to President Nicolás Maduro. With his sharp suits and the air of a young Barack Obama, the 35-year-old head of Congress spoke confidently of ousting the president and leading a transitional government towards new elections.
But nearly a year later his movement is in disarray. Mr Maduro has resisted all attempts to topple him and enjoys the support of Russia, China, Cuba and his own armed forces. Norwegian-brokered talks between the government and the opposition have fizzled out.
Some moderate opponents have broken ranks with Mr Guaidó and are negotiating with the government. The Trump administration, vocal in its call for regime change in Caracas earlier in the year, appears to have gone quiet. In a new blow, he has sacked an envoy to regional ally Colombia. Last weekend, congressmen in his coalition faced allegations of corruption, which they have denied.
“The opposition is in worse shape than it’s been all year,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst based in Caracas. “We’re witnessing the end of this Guaidó era, in which the opposition was united and his leadership was unquestioned. Guaidó hasn’t delivered. He hasn’t fulfilled his promise.”
In 2020, Mr Guaidó also faces two potential votes, both of them crucial.
The first — if it goes ahead — will be on or around January 5 when his mandate as president of the National Assembly, or congress, expires. Mr Guaidó’s claim to the interim Venezuelan presidency rests on the fact that he heads congress, the only democratically elected institution in the country. For now, it seems he will win a vote if the government decides to force one. His coalition has two-thirds of the seats in congress and the four main opposition parties are solidly behind him.
“It would be improper and counterproductive not to back Juan,” said Edgar Zambrano, a congressional vice-president and a leading figure in one of those parties, Acción Democrática (Democratic Action).
Congressional elections must also be held by the end of 2020. It is unclear whether the opposition will participate. “Do we carry on calling for better electoral conditions so we can compete on a level playing field? Or do we simply cross our arms and boycott the vote?” Mr Zambrano said as he sat in Acción Democrática’s sparsely-furnished party headquarters in Caracas.
For some in the opposition there is no such dilemma. “This government is a mafia and you cannot cohabit with a mafia,” said María Corina Machado, leader of Vente Venezuela (Come Venezuela), a hardline opposition party which has criticised Mr Guaidó’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the Maduro regime.
“We will only go to elections if Maduro and his mafia step down first,” she said. “If Juan Guaidó thinks about going to elections while Maduro is still in power it would be a grave mistake.”
Still, even though Mr Guaidó’s popularity has waned, no one has emerged to challenge him as leader of the opposition. Rather, Venezuelans seem to have lost faith in the political process altogether even as the crisis itself shows little sign of abating. Around 4.5m Venezuelans have left their country over the past four years, fleeing shortages of food and medicine and hyperinflation that has reduced their wages to a pittance. The economy has halved in size in that time in one of the worst recessions in Latin American history and the IMF expects it to contract a further 35 per cent this year.
Datanálisis, widely considered the country’s most reliable pollster, said Mr Guaidó remains three times as popular as Mr Maduro and that 79 per cent of Venezuelans want political change. If there was a head-to-head vote now, Mr Guaidó would win 39 per cent of the vote — way more than his rivals.
Mr Guaidó’s efforts to keep Venezuela in the public eye has also been hampered by events elsewhere in the region, where protests have broken out in Chile, Ecuador and Colombia in recent months.
“[Regional] leaders are battling their own domestic political crises and have limited bandwidth to focus on Venezuela,” the Eurasia Group noted. “In this context, opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s regional coalition looks to be much weaker.”
For Mr Pantoulas, the outlook for the Venezuelan opposition as it heads into 2020 is bleak. “Maduro looks more secure than ever,” he said. “He could be in power for another two or three years — easily.”
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