U.S. looks for opportunity in ouster of Venezuela’s Guaido

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For four years, Juan Guaidó has embodied the audacious gamble by the U.S. government to unseat Venezuela’s autocratic leader and restore democracy to a once-prosperous, oil-rich nation mired in political and economic chaos.

But almost as quickly as he rose to international fame, Guaidó fell from the pinnacle of pseudo-power, his efforts to remove Nicolás Maduro from the presidency ultimately unfruitful. Now, he has been dumped by his own allies at home while his former backers in Washington appear eager to move on.

The removal by the Venezuelan opposition exposed the spectacular failure of the U.S. policy. But it also may prove useful to U.S. interests by lifting a burden from the pro-democracy campaign.

The Biden administration “saw the writing on the wall,” said Michael Shifter, senior fellow and past president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

“Guaidó had lost a lot of support, at home and abroad, and was no longer able to lead the opposition,” Shifter said. “He wasn’t going to be viable. It made sense in 2019. But for the last year, it has not made sense.”

Guaidó, at the time a minor opposition figure who was elected head of the National Assembly, declared himself the legitimate president of Venezuela in January 2019, after a national election, widely considered fraudulent, that Maduro used to claim victory and another term in the top office.

Then-President Trump, knowing how the campaign to dislodge Maduro resonated with conservative Florida voters, quickly recognized Guaidó and launched a “maximum pressure” policy of imposing numerous economic and political sanctions on Venezuela. In early 2020, the U.S. indicted Maduro on federal drug charges.

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More than 60 other countries, many in Latin America, eventually joined in recognizing Guaidó and shunning Maduro.

An odd parallel system emerged. Guaidó, now 39, and his supporters controlled many of Venezuela’s embassies and assets held abroad, including oil revenue from the Houston-based oil company Citgo and gold at the Bank of England. They had limited access to the money, which was used in part to finance their political activities.

But they had no power inside Venezuela, beyond the ability to hold occasional rallies.

Four years later, Maduro, though unpopular, is as entrenched as ever, and the opposition has little to show for its efforts — it has, in fact, lost ground. Last week, on the penultimate day of 2022, Venezuela’s opposition politicians voted to oust Guaidó and disband the so-called interim government he led, replacing it with a committee that will focus on new elections scheduled for next year.

Shifter and others said maintaining Guaidó as figurehead weighed down the opposition and prevented it from making the changes necessary to be more successful. Guaidó is forever tied to the punitive policies of the Trump administration, analysts said, at a time when Maduro, his opponents and the U.S. government might become more flexible. The opposition in Venezuela is also evolving.

“This is a reset,” Shifter said.

In Venezuela, “they have new parties, new leaders,” said David Smilde, a sociologist at Tulane University and expert on the country. “They could not progress forward with the interim government [structure].”

There were other changes. Countries that had backed Guaidó dropped out of the coalition, particularly in Latin America, where several leftist governments elected to replace more center-right administrations have been friendlier with the socialist Maduro.

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In March, Washington broke its diplomatic freeze of Caracas by sending a high-level delegation to negotiate the release of U.S. citizens detained in Venezuela, among other topics. Nine were eventually freed, and the Maduro government agreed to renew talks with the opposition. The U.S. slightly eased sanctions to allow energy giant Chevron to resume oil production in Venezuela. And some humanitarian aid flowed.

These shifts in Venezuela and in many minds in Washington hold promise, possibly for the first time in years, said Abraham Lowenthal, a leading scholar on Latin America and professor emeritus at USC.

“The prospects for making progress on important issues” such as human rights and the revival of democratic institutions “are plausible and should be grasped,” Lowenthal said, cautioning that change would be incremental.

Lowenthal chaired a working group on Venezuela sponsored by the Wilson Center think tank that will release a major report later this month analyzing the dynamics in the beleaguered country and recommending steps for the U.S. government.

In its first comments on Guaidó’s removal, the Biden administration in effect yanked its support for Guaidó while saying it continued to consider Maduro an “illegitimate” leader. Washington will work with whatever entity replaces Guaidó and the so-called interim government, the administration said, because it springs from the National Assembly, a decade-old legislative body that the State Department considers the last remnant of democratically elected power in Venezuela.

“We and the region’s democracies will continue to support the efforts of the 2015 National Assembly and others to return democracy to Venezuela,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a briefing with reporters when asked whether the U.S. would continue to support Guaidó.

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“In terms of our approach to Nicolás Maduro, our approach has not changed,” Price added. “He is illegitimate. We support the 2015 National Assembly as the only remaining vestige of democracy in Venezuela.”

A formal statement from Price issued later did not mention Guaidó’s name.

John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, which has led the recent overtures to Caracas, said Wednesday that “Mr. Guaidó remains a member of that 2015 National Assembly and we’re going to continue to coordinate with him and other like-minded democratic leaders and actors there in Venezuela to support the Venezuelan people.”

While not always reliable, polling in Venezuela has shown Guaidó’s popularity plummeting. In recent times, he seemed to find more support and a warmer reception on Capitol Hill, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and fellow conservatives embraced him, than he did at the State Department or even the White House. Rubio has called the shift on Venezuela policy the “appeasement” of a “brutal dictator.”

Maduro, meanwhile, told an interviewer this week that he was “prepared to take steps” that could lead to normalizing diplomatic ties with the U.S. But some analysts think that’s unlikely, given that Maduro’s bottom line is to hold on to power.

“His strategy is to cede just enough power, open just enough [to] democracy” to get sanctions lifted, generate economic growth and gain international recognition, Smilde said. “He will do everything he can to prevent … having to give up [real] power.”