Juan Guaidó attempting to jump the fence to enter the National Assembly, despite having the option to walk in through the front door. Photo: AFP.
By Leonardo Flores
Fistfights and screaming matches broke out at Venezuela’s National Assembly on January 5th, when the assembly was scheduled to elect its leader. But it wasn’t what you might think. The fights weren’t between chavistas (those who support the Bolivarian Revolution and President Maduro) and oppositionists, but between members of the opposition itself. The opposition imploded because Juan Guaidó, the former president of the National Assembly and allegedly interim president of the country, lost his campaign to be reelected as head of the legislature.
The Venezuelan opposition is a disaster; it has been a disaster since Hugo Chávez’s first election in 1998. It’s a loose and ever-changing coalition of around a dozen political parties, with differing ideologies, strategies and constituencies. The far-right, which is mainly the two political parties Voluntad Popular and Primero Justicia, is filled with people who have been receiving financial and logistical support from the United States for the past twenty years. In the 2002 coup against then President Chávez, the far right briefly took over and excluded the more moderate opposition from positions of power. The moderates learned the wrong lesson: instead of challenging the U.S.-backed right, it caved to them, acceding to their plans of regime change and undemocratic maneuvers.
But an important split occurred between the moderates and the extremists during the presidential elections in May 2018. The moderates ignored the far right’s calls for a boycott and won 3 million votes in the presidential elections out of a voting electorate of around 15 million people (with approximately 20 million eligible voters). In September 2019, they sat down with the Maduro administration and came to a wide-ranging agreement that includes a bipartisan rejection of U.S. sanctions and the appointment of new members of the National Electoral Council. Between them, the moderates and chavistas represent more than 9 million votes, representing 60% of likely voters and 45% of eligible voters. This dialogue between two important sectors of Venezuela electoral politics helps explain why September, October and November were easily the most stable three months in Venezuela’s 2019.
The dialogue directly led to the events of January 5th in Caracas. Juan Guaidó of Voluntad Popular, head of the National Assembly since January 2019 - which is the justification used for him to call himself president of the country - was facing a tough reelection. As both sides traded unsubstantiated claims of influence peddling, it became clear early in the day that the moderate opposition would join forces with chavismo to replace Guaidó.
With 150 of 165 members present, the National Assembly elected Luis Parra as its new president. Parra, of the conservative opposition party Primero Justicia, was elected with 81 votes. The vice president is Franklin Duarte of the conservative christian COPEI party (one of Venezuela’s two main political parties prior to the revolution). José Gregorio Goyo Noriega, of Guaidós own Voluntad Popular party, was elected as the Assembly’s second vice president. Negal Morales of Acción Democrática (the other pre-revolution major party) was elected secretary of the National Assembly. All four of these parties are firmly in the opposition, belying claims that President Maduro somehow took over the legislature.
At least 30 moderate oppositionists joined chavistas in electing 2 people from far-right parties to the highest posts in the National Assembly. Venezuela is a complicated country, with its own logic that defies sense, much like its economy; this maneuver by chavismo and the moderates is the next step towards breaking a political deadlock that has paralyzed the country since 2016.
Primero Justicia itself best exemplifies the divides within the opposition, as it is probably the most divided political party in the country. It contains Parra, who has participated in dialogue with the government; in a press conference after being sworn in, he said “we [the opposition] are no longer hooked on confrontation, our first and great challenge is to end confrontation… we’re going to start a path of depolarization of the country and the legislature.” This party also contains Julio Borges, who called Venezuelan migration a plague (feeding into the region’s rampant, and in some instances, state sponsored, anti-Venezuelan xenophobia) and called for a U.S. military option. Primero Justicia’s divisions reflect the opposition’s divisions: a wing that wants coexistence, another that wants conquest.
As it became clear that he was about to lose his reelection, the ever-farcical Guaidó put on the latest episode of his parallel reality show. He convinced some of the world’s most shameless journalists that he was physically barred from entering the National Assembly by security forces. The video shows otherwise.
Guaidó refused to enter the premises if he wasn’t also allowed to bring in 11 former members of the National Assembly. These 11 range from members who were ruled ineligible to serve in the legislature by the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Venezuela’s supreme court) due to an alleged vote buying scheme in their elections, to members who had their parliamentary immunity stripped for having participated in the April 30th, 2019, attempted uprising (the one in which the Guaidó faction courageously took over an exit ramp). The focus on the 11 former legislators who weren’t allowed to enter ignore the nearly 100 opposition legislators who did enter and were present for the vote.
After losing, the Guaidó spectacle continued: he decided to create a parallel congress to go with his parallel presidency, presumably with the upcoming blessing of the parallel supreme court (they operate out of Miami, and are as disastrous as the rest of the opposition).
The media battle – the disinformation campaign and its counter campaign – is in full swing. According to Parra, there was a quorum and there was a vote, making his ascendence to the head of the National Assembly totally legitimate. The Guaidó faction, however, claims neither happened. Hours after Parra’s swearing in, Guaidó’s parallel congress was sworn in at the offices of a pro-opposition newspaper. He claims to have been reelected in the congress with 100 votes. The confusion surrounding who is and isn’t a member of the National Assembly, as well as technical issues regarding alternate legislators, will suffice to convince most Democrats in Congress, and some of those running for the nomination, to not question Guaidó and the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy.
The levels of bipartisan support for this policy would be absurd if they weren’t so deadly. However, despite the policy of hybrid war, Venezuela has, against all odds, started to recover economically. Oil production is up, oil income is up, a tariff on goods from the U.S. was lifted (flooding the country with products like Nutella that used to be rare treasures just six months ago), and Venezuela’s digital currency, the Petro, was successfully introduced to the public. Plus the social safety net has been strengthened, with the CLAP food distribution program reaching 7 million families every month. On top of that, the Great Housing Mission has built its 3,000,000th home. Using an estimate of 4 people per household (which is low for poor and working class Venezuelans), that means that at least 12,000,000 people, out of a population of 30 million, live in quality, low-to-no cost housing.
Simple math shows that nearly twice as many Venezuelans live in government-built homes than vote for chavismo (most of these homes were built by the government and government contractors, some were and are being built by communities themselves). This is a huge sector of the population that has directly benefited from government programs, that doesn’t exclusively blame President Maduro for their difficulties, and that is turned off by extremist positions. Without these votes, the opposition cannot win elections unless they are rigged. These are the voters the moderate opposition is counting on, and it’s not inconceivable that the moderates will become a majority within the opposition when the 2020 legislative elections are held (no date has yet been set).
Guaidó’s star has faded, and although we didn’t know it at the time, it was fading fast by February 23rd, when he tried to forcibly deliver humanitarian aid from Colombia through the Venezuelan border. As we’ve gotten more information about what happened that day, the worse Guaidó has looked. Consider a key event leading up to this date: Guaidó entered Colombia with the help of Los Rastrojos, a nefarious paramilitary drug cartel. Later that day, Guaidó’s supporters burned their own aid trucks (a fact the New York Times admitted weeks after the fact, long after reporters on the ground covered it). Months later, we learned that much of this humanitarian aid was embezzled by Guaidó’s “appointees” in Colombia.
The scandal over the humanitarian aid theft blew up in Venezuela about two months ago, further splintering the opposition. It was the perfect excuse to get rid of Juan Guaidó, after too many failures and his clear commitment to using undemocratic means to take power. There was the failed uprising of April 30th, several plots aimed at destabilization that the government has foiled (generally providing video evidence, recorded phone conversations and screenshots of text messages), and 2019’s last act of desperation: an attack on military bases in southern Venezuela, which was coordinated with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro according to O Globo.
Guaidó started 2019 by establishing a parallel yet powerless presidency. He started 2020 by creating a parallel congress. It’s unlikely this congress will be able to do anything other than alienate its own base. Predictably, the State Department is using the same language as Guaidó and offering his congress immediate recognition. Trump and the White House have yet to weigh in as of January 6, understandably too busy escalating the conflict with Iran, although Vice President Pence congratulated Guaidó on “his re-election as interim president”, which wasn’t at all what happened, even in the parallel congress.
Yet it’s not clear if the State Department and Trump are on the same page regarding Venezuela. Trump’s frustration with the policy is building after being assured that getting rid of Maduro would be an easy win. That could help explain why Erik Prince, of Blackwater fame and known associate of the president, held backchannel discussions in Venezuela with Vice President Delcy Rodríguez. Prince, who earlier in 2019 pitched a plan to raise a mercenary army to overthrow Maduro, was reported by Bloomberg as being there to negotiate the release of a group of Venezuelan-Americans in jail pending a corruption trial (they are now under house arrest in a gesture by President Maduro), although a more plausible explanation credits Argentinean President Alberto Fernández for their partial release. The Prince meeting meeting likely took place with Trump’s knowledge (would Prince seriously consider doing something that could be seen as going behind Trump’s back?), and the most interesting theory is that the meeting was related to holders of Venezuelan bonds and international finance. These bondholders, who prior to the Trump administration’s sanctions were routinely paid on time by the Maduro government, are angry that they can’t collect, and that their best chance to collect - profits from Venezuelan owned Citgo - might be liquidated by the Guaidó faction. The State Department downplayed Prince’s visit and reacted poorly, with unnamed officials accusing Prince of violating U.S. sanctions.
This points to strong differences of opinions regarding U.S. policy toward Venezuela between various interest groups, one of which appears to want negotiations between the two governments. The prospect of negotiations was greatly aided by the firing of John Bolton in September, as well as by the seeming disconnect between the White House and State Department. Yet this is all complicated by the fact that Trump’s good polling news in Florida, meaning there would be risks in changing policy towards Venezuela, as the anti Venezuela and Cuba lobbies have outside influence in the state. A change would imply a political price to be paid, perhaps blowback in the form of clashes with key senators (Rubio and Menéndez) and even the possibility of losing Florida in November.
However, now that the United States has been so explicit about being at war with Iran, the political risks of having high oil prices in an election year have to be taken into account. Perhaps the Trump administration might pivot to dialogue in Venezuela and lift sanctions to spur its oil production and soften the shock that will be caused by an escalation of the U.S.-Iran conflict. The best case scenario for Venezuela involves a lifting of the sanctions, but another outcome seems more probable: business as usual until after the U.S. presidential election, at which point the Juan Guaidó parallel reality show may finally come to an end.
Leonardo Flores is a Latin American policy expert and campaigner with CODEPINK.