Six months of fading promises, but Venezuela’s Guaidó hangs on

Leo Alvarez/Prensa Juan Guaido/Reuters
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó waves a national flag as he arrives in a boat for a meeting with supporters near Porlamar, Isla de Margarita, Venezuela, on July 18, 2019.
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Miranda Flores, a nurse in Caracas, remembers rallies for Juan Guaidó where she felt “dazzled.”

Mr. Guaidó, the opposition leader who declared himself interim president in January on account of President Nicolás Maduro’s contested reelection, no longer inspires quite the same feeling. But Ms. Flores, like many Venezuelans, is still hoping – just on a different timeline.

Why We Wrote This

Dramatic action poises us to expect dramatic change – and fast. In Venezuela, fans of self-declared president Juan Guaidó are learning to readjust their timeline. But can hope keep holding on without much progress?

“I refuse to feel crushed again like so many times before,” she says. 

In the six months since Mr. Guaidó began his battle with Mr. Maduro, he’s made a long list of lofty and daring promises, and equally daring moves – and has failed to deliver on nearly every one.

But he’s still standing, and still pulls support above 50%, in contrast to past leaders who have tried to unify the splintered opposition. In part, that’s thanks to his strong support abroad, from countries that view him as a palatable, non-interventionist route toward regime change. 

The problem is that Mr. Maduro’s still standing, too. And that means Mr. Guaidó needs a Plan B, supporters or no. 

“I will be with Guaidó until the very end,” Ms. Flores says. “If he doesn’t make it, I will leave the country.”

For high school teacher Roberto Ortiz, the political battle between leaders Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó over who is the legitimate president of Venezuela is like watching a long, exhausting boxing match. 

On January 23, Mr. Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, stood in front of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in eastern Caracas to declare himself interim president, rejecting Mr. Maduro’s contested 2018 election as illegitimate. He had a long list of lofty and daring promises: pledging to bring in international humanitarian aid within a month for a population increasingly suffering from food and medical shortages, and vowing to pressure Mr. Maduro to step down and hold fresh presidential elections.  

Six months later, he’s failed to deliver on nearly everything, and struggling to harness the enthusiasm and hope he originally inspired. 

Why We Wrote This

Dramatic action poises us to expect dramatic change – and fast. In Venezuela, fans of self-declared president Juan Guaidó are learning to readjust their timeline. But can hope keep holding on without much progress?

But he’s still standing. 

“Guaidó is still in the fight and has punched Maduro pretty hard. The previous opposition leaders were not able to hurt Maduro too much and some even refused to enter the ring,” says Mr. Ortiz, at a rally for Mr. Guaidó in the northwestern city of Barquisimeto in late May.

Despite repeated letdowns, Mr. Guaidó remains a beacon of hope for many in and outside Venezuela. This is in stark contrast to opposition leaders who have failed to unify supporters – or the historically splintered opposition party coalition – in the past. For a society accustomed to constantly looking for its next political savior, the fact that his rallies continue to draw big crowds and that his support is still above 50% is telling, observers say.

The combination of foreign support for his interim leadership, his ability to skirt imprisonment or arrest by the Maduro government, and his continued high-profile presence across Venezuela has given many Venezuelans faith that he may still be able to deliver on a regime change – even if the timeline is longer than many had hoped.

“He has the courage to call himself the president,” says Caracas-based political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. And “he has the support of the U.S. and most of the Western world, which is fundamental.”  

Risky moves 

After Mr. Guaidó missed ambitious deadlines to bring in humanitarian aid, many saw April 30 as his make or break. In the early-morning hours he broadcast a message to the world, saying he had the support of the armed forces and it was time for Mr. Maduro to step down. Within hours, it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. The few soldiers who did defect soon went into hiding, and Mr. Guaidó’s risky move fizzled. Although his approval ratings fell following the stunt, many were surprised he didn’t fall out of favor more dramatically, as other opposition leaders have after failing to follow through on big promises. 

“When it comes to popularity, Guaidó continues to be a strong leader. His approval rating fell only from 61% in February to 56% at the end of May. Maduro’s approval rating is now abysmal, around 10%,” says Luis Vicente León, director of Caracas-based polling company Datanálisis.     

But Mr. Guaidó’s sustained popularity no longer translates into feelings of hope for immediate change. In late May, only 25% of the respondents in a Datanálisis poll believed in Mr. Maduro’s imminent exit, while back in January the expectations were much higher – 70% of Venezuelans assumed Mr. Maduro was on his way out the door, says Mr. León.  

Part of what’s buoyed Mr. Guaidó is his visible presence around the country. He’s trying to hold a rally in every state, hitting 12 so far this year and with plans to visit at least four more in July alone. At each stop, he’s calling for Mr. Maduro to step down. In his speeches and interviews, he’s labeled Mr. Maduro’s inner circle as a group of thieves, and he’s alluded to his constitutional power to invite international military intervention.

This kind of behavior would have landed any other opposition leader in jail. In fact, many former leaders, from Leopoldo López to Henrique Capriles, have been banned from holding office, put under house arrest, or are now in hiding following their public rejection of Mr. Maduro.  

But Mr. Guaidó’s been able to remain untouchable due to the international support he’s received. More than 50 nations, including the United States, Canada, Japan, most of the European Union countries, Brazil, and Argentina, recognize him as the nation’s “legitimate” president. After years of downward economic spiral that have led an estimated 4 million people to seek refuge abroad, neighbors and the international community at large see Venezuela’s economic, humanitarian, and political crises as more pressing than ever. Mr. Guaidó’s use of legal channels to declare himself interim president offer the international community a palatable, non-interventionist route toward regime change. 

And it helps that Mr. Guaidó’s supporters see him as an honest broker: He won’t betray their interests by making deals with the government behind closed doors, says Mr. Pantoulas. “This was something the previous opposition leaders would often do,” he says.

No longer “dazzled,” not yet “crushed” 

At Mr. Guaidó’s most recent rally in Caracas on July 5, Venezuela’s Independence Day, supporters swarmed him upon arrival, trying to clench a handshake or at least brush the opposition leader’s arm. Those further out chanted “Mr. President! Mr. President!” 

Miranda Flores, a nurse, recalls earlier rallies – before the failed attempt to oust Mr. Maduro in April or the inability to get humanitarian aid across the Colombian border in February – where she felt “dazzled.” 

That’s no longer the case, but she still supports Mr. Guaidó.  

“I refuse to feel crushed again like so many times before,” she says of getting her hopes up for change.

“I will be with Guaidó until the very end. If he doesn’t make it, I will leave the country,” says Ms. Flores, who lives in the working-class Caracas neighborhood of Petare, long a stronghold for Mr. Maduro and the Chavista government that’s held power for two decades.

Mr. Guaidó appeals to a range of social classes, says Alonso Moleiro, a Venezuelan columnist.

“Guaidó goes to the hinterlands unannounced without any publicity, with no television coverage. Many people in those places don’t even have smartphones. They struggle with power outages, lack of running water, and have no access to transportation. Still, they all come to see him,” Mr. Moleiro says.     

But some question how long hope can last in Venezuela today, as the humanitarian situation worsens under recent U.S. oil sanctions, which have further prevented Mr. Maduro’s government from importing vital food and medical products. Venezuela depends on oil sales to generate more than 95% of its exports. The economic and humanitarian situation is only expected to worsen, with the International Monetary Fund predicting Venezuela’s economy will shrink by 25% by the end of 2019.

Many worry the prospect of a famine looms, and the question now is whether Mr. Maduro will make concessions or step down. He has met the opposition at the negotiating table in recent months for the first time since 2017. 

But for some, it’s no longer about Mr. Maduro’s actions, but Mr. Guaidó’s.

“Guaidó has been trying to come up with a Plan B,” says Ricardo González, a mechanic in Caracas. “People now clearly see he hasn’t been able to change anything. Soon, he’ll be history and we will be living an even more painful present.” 

Ms. Flores, the nurse, disagrees. “With most of the Western world behind him, the sanctions, and his public support: It will be difficult for anyone to reach this kind of popularity. He is the one.”

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