2020 has just begun and political tensions in Venezuela have already reached a boiling point. On January 5, the National Assembly (AN) annually selects its leadership, and Juan Guaido needed to secure reelection in order to justify remaining in his self-proclaimed post of “interim president.” But he did not have it easy.
Explaining the technical, political, and judicial reasons that led the opposition to the point of losing its parliamentary majority might be entertaining given the magnitude of the opposition scandals and the judicialization of politics introduced by the Maduro government. But such an exercise is of little use in understanding the political effects of what happened the first week of January in Caracas, especially January 5 and 7.
The first thing to consider is that the opposition will soon have to decide if it will boycott the legislative elections that must constitutionally be held this year. We should recognize that the government, which controls the National Electoral Council that sets the electoral calendar, might be inclined to hold them as soon as possible in order to catch the opposition off guard and exploit the internal rift between those seeking to participate and those bent on abstaining. The legislative branch is the only one controlled by the opposition, and losing it means disappearing from the institutional map.
This means that Guaido, who has served a year as AN president, not only must retain his post but also effectuate a political change of course, opening new electoral possibilities which have remained closed to the opposition since it adopted its boycott strategy in the 2018 presidential elections. And he must achieve this reorientation at a time when he is hemorrhaging popular support at an accelerated rate due to the enormous expectations he raised and his failure to advance in the barest minimum.
Guaido needed a new look. Rebranding himself as a street fighter, on January 5, he attempted to scale the fence surrounding the National Assembly, tussling with security forces on the shoulders of his deputies. Finally on January 7, after forcing his way through the security perimeter, he led his deputies into the legislative chamber in what appeared to be a retaking of the palace, projecting an image of audacity before the international corporate media and taking the government by surprise. This was far from a checkmate against the government, but it did allow Guaido to reestablish his leadership in order to make crucial political decisions regarding participation in elections, which would be anathema to his hardline opposition base, especially after successive opposition boycotts in presidential, mayoral, and municipal council elections.
While Guaido may have secured a new lease on political life, we should also analyze what he has lost on the institutional plane: now there is a new president of the National Assembly, Deputy Luis Parra, who was elected with the votes of the pro-government bloc and the dissident opposition.
Understanding what is happening in Venezuela is not easy. At the beginning of 2019, we were talking about two presidents of Venezuela. At the start of 2020, we are now speaking of two legislatures. How can this be? We will try to explain.
2020: Two parliamentary presidents
The situation became unexpectedly complicated for Guaido in recent weeks with the emergence of an opposition faction that declared itself in “rebellion” against his authority and would come to run an independent slate in leadership elections. This faction is comprised of deputies from different parties, some of which belong to the dialogue “roundtable” with the government, while others have broken with their respective parties following the tremendous corruption scandals unearthed in December, in which several of the protagonists are implicated. The opposition, for its part, has accused the Maduro government of bribing legislators to vote against Guaido.
On January 5, the Legislative Palace was heavily guarded by the police and National Guard. When the session, which was to include a vote and swearing in of the new leadership, was set to begin, a scuffle broke out at the entrance between Guaido and security personnel. The deputies in the chamber subsequently proceeded to vote on the dissident opposition ticket, which received the backing of the pro-government bloc and was swiftly sworn in amid chaotic scenes in the chamber. The newly elected president was Luis Parra, who just days before had been expelled from First Justice, the opposition party of Julio Borges and Henrique Capriles.
Guaido, meanwhile, had sought to attract media attention by attempting to break through the security cordon, claiming that the National Guard prohibited his entry. The government showed a video of the National Guard apparently allowing Guaido to enter, seeking to show that the opposition leader was mounting a media spectacle because he did not have enough votes.
Later that afternoon, Guaido and his deputies reconvened at the headquarters of opposition media outlet El Nacional, where they elected a new leadership headed by Guaido. According to their count, there were 100 deputies who voted to reelect the incumbent.
Most of the information regarding quorums and the number of votes secured to elect both leaderships is a function of political partisanship rather than neutral fact-finding, though economist Francisco Rodriguez has sought to independently verify the tallies. For this reason, our focus here is not on which AN leadership is legitimate but rather on the political implications the election may have for the Maduro government and the opposition.
Will Guaido hang on?
There are two possible readings of recent events. On the one hand Guaido has come out on top, unifying and revitalizing the opposition, and giving his own leadership a much-needed shot in the arm. On the other, the opposition leader received a dose of his own medicine and now has a rival legislative president, just has he tried against Maduro, formally dividing the opposition, which has lost its parliamentary majority.
Guaido certainly succeeded in reestablishing his alliance with the radical opposition sectors headed by Maria Corina Machado and the 16 de Julio faction, which had indicated it would not support him for a second term. It also revived some enthusiasm among the opposition bases which viewed the events as a victory for their leader.
But now Guaido has been definitively displaced from the symbolism of parliamentary power: the president’s office, the legislative chamber, etc. And his position as “interim president of the republic,” which was rather unbelievable before, is now outright ridiculous. He must quickly capitalize on this bump in opposition enthusiasm after January 7 in order to execute a political shift that extricates the opposition from its current stagnation.
Meanwhile, on the international level, the situation has become more complex for the Maduro government.
In the dispute over the AN, the government undoubtedly resorted to heavy-handed tactics, including a tight security perimeter as well as the judicialization of politics in which various opposition deputies had their parliamentary immunity revoked for alleged criminal offenses. As a result, the Venezuelan government was harshly criticized by regional progressive governments it considers as allies such as Mexico and Argentina, who categorically condemned Caracas’ handling of the incident. In the latter case it led to a diatribe involving the Argentine Foreign Minister Felipe Sola and National Constituent Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.
In Caracas’ defense, we should note that over the past year the region has witnessed brazen assaults on the power of congress in Bolivia and Peru, which were met with little outcry given unwavering US support for both regimes. By comparison, the actions of the Venezuelan government were soft insofar as it sought to win on the basis of technicalities despite making extensive use of security measures. It’s also worth noting that in any Western country, an opposition leader declaring himself “interim president” with the backing of hostile foreign powers would almost certainly be in jail, not running for reelection as head of parliament.
New legislative elections
Regardless of when AN elections are held, and it could be very soon as we explained above, the opposition will have to decide whether it will compete or not. The ball is firmly in Guaido’s court.
As we know, the signals coming from the United States are key, not only from the Trump administration but also from the US-based Venezuelan opposition leadership and economic elite, which has refused to participate in an electoral contest as long as Maduro remains in power.
Some outlets and analysts interpret the January 8 statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a shift in the US position in favor of dialogue and diplomacy – “negotiations could open the path out of the crisis” – though he continues to speak of a “transition government” that Maduro will not accept.
It will take a lot of maneuvering if the US wants to green light the opposition’s participation in parliamentary elections under the current conditions, unless the Trump administration wants to cede the field to the dissident opposition that is already beginning to fill the Treasury Department’s blacklist.