CARACAS, VENEZUELA - JUNE 27: Nicolas Maduro President of Venezuela gestures during the Simon Bolivar Journalism National Award ceremony at Palacio de Miraflores on June 27, 2019 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Matias Delacroix/Getty Images)
What should President Biden do about Venezuela?
00:59 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Flanked by flags in the makeshift assembly hall of a non-descript office building, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition told lawmakers that 2021 would be the year that would change Venezuela’s fate.

“It’s the end of a cycle, because in 2021 Venezuela will be reborn and will see freedom,” Juan Guaidó said at the January 5 meeting, as he asked the opposition to unite around him.

There was some applause from dozens of opposition members present or calling into the wood-paneled room in East Caracas – but it was a stark contrast from nearly two years ago, when the young leader took the stage with a similar promise of freedom.

In January 2019, surrounded by friends and allies, Guaidó – recently minted the head of opposition-controlled National Assembly – had stood before a roaring crowd. In his left hand, he held a small pocket Constitution engraved with the face of South American revolutionary and local hero Simon Bolivar, then raised his right hand and began reciting an oath: “I swear,” he said, pausing as the crowd began cheering. “To formally assume the power of the National Executive as the President of Venezuela.”

Guaidó at a protest in February 2019.

The crowd went wild, waving flags, holding their fists in the air in celebration, some even brought to tears by his declaration. For many, this seemed to be a turning point toward justice, after a widely disputed election in which Nicolas Maduro claimed a second term as Venezuela’s President.

The opposition’s argument was that Guaidó should instead serve as Venezuela’s interim president per his constitutional duty as President of the National Assembly – at least until free and fair elections could be held.

The United States under President Donald Trump soon recognized Guaidó as the country’s lawful leader. More than 60 countries soon did the same. Venezuela suddenly seemed poised for change after years of corruption and mismanagement under the governments of Hugo Chavez and Maduro, widely considered responsible for driving the country into extreme poverty.

Weeks of demonstrations in support of Guaidó’s claim to the presidency ensued, especially in the capital Caracas, some attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The popular movement culminated in a botched coup attempt in April 2019, when Guaidó announced a revolutionary uprising at dawn from Generalissimo Francisco de Miranda Air Base, also known as “La Carlota” in Caracas, alongside supporters, allies and a group of soldiers.

He called it “the final phase of Operation Freedom” and said it would put an end to Maduro’s control of the Venezuelan government – but the uprising ultimately failed.

An anti-Maduro protest in 2019.

Protests have since waned and animosity against the regime tuned down. Many Venezuelans, already on their knees after years of economic decline, seem to have lost the urgency of their desire for political change, as the country grapples with a deadly pandemic.

Last month, most opposition figures from the National Assembly, including Guaidó withdrew ahead of another round of elections, saying they didn’t have a fair shot. They said they saw the vote as fraudulent after Venezuela’s Supreme Court - which is full of Maduro loyalists - wrested control of the main opposition parties and handed it over to politicians loyal to the regime. And though they maintain they are the only democratically elected and rightful representatives of the Venezuelan people, the unseated opposition legislators have been forced into hiding and meet in secret locations.

Some in the international community, including the United States, have promised continued support for Guaidó and his movement. “The international community cannot allow Maduro, who is in power illegitimately because he stole the 2018 election, to gain from stealing another election,” a spokesperson for the US State Department Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs told CNN on January 8.

“Neither Maduro nor his new, fraudulently elected illegitimate National Assembly will represent the voice of the Venezuelan people, which should be expressed through free and fair elections.”

But many in the country and abroad now doubt that Guaidó can deliver on his promise to restore democracy. Even the European Union, while rejecting the results of the National Assembly elections, did not refer to Guaidó as “Interim President” in a recent statement, saying “the EU will maintain its engagement with all political and civil society actors striving to bring back democracy to Venezuela, including in particular Juan Guaidó and other representatives of the outgoing National Assembly elected in 2015.”

Meanwhile, cracks are appearing in Guaidó’s armor at home, with some in the opposition questioning his strategy.

On August 23, fellow opposition politician and former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles called for Venezuelans to participate in the December election, breaking ranks with the rest of the opposition which had called for a boycott. “It’s not about returning to argue what we already know: that the Maduro regime doesn’t want the discontent to use their vote, that they are capable of everything even while having 80% of the country against them,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s about… debating a route that isn’t solely that of abstention and resignation.”

Another former presidential candidate from opposition ranks, Maria Corina Machado, wants more extreme action than Guaidó took. “Today we call for the strategy of force,” she said in a video to her supporters on December 30 “Yes, I am calling for it, because it is the only that allows us to remove these criminals from power.”

Some in the opposition have started questioning Guaidó's strategy.

Machado believes Guaidó’s team missed its chance to effect real change, she told CNN last month. “I think there’s been a lack of accountability from the interim government (of Juan Guaidó),” she said. “We had the greatest opportunity ever to get rid of this horrible regime and I think the opposition has committed important mistakes.”

Despite her criticism and the fact that some lawmakers have recently given in to regime pressure and switched sides to support Maduro, Machado claims Venezuela’s opposition is still united – though its strategy needs to change.

“Society has been more united and supportive when the opposition has been able to manage a strategy that the population feels can be effective in producing regime change,” she explains, adding that “Juan Guaidó had huge support” while people believed his strategy of relying mostly on international pressure, especially US sanctions, could deliver. As it became clear it would not, “people started doubting as well,” she adds.

Many on the streets of Caracas seem to agree with Machado. Nearly two years after Guaidó’s declaration, they feel momentum has shifted, that Maduro has tightened his grip on power and that another shift is needed.

“The form of struggle needs to change,” with a pro-opposition union leader said, out elaborating how. Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion , they added that that Venezuelans are “disappointed” and “no longer expect anything” from Juan Guaidó. “People feel he does not represent a solution. And what people need is a solution.”

Back in the wood-panelled room in East Caracas, Guaidó told lawmakers he welcomed “constructive criticism” from all sides, acknowledging that some had proposed different strategies, including Capriles and Machado, whom he said had done “so much” for Venezuela.

However, he also asked them to debate each other’s differences from a position of “unity, needed to face this dictatorship.”

“This is the moment, the last call from your country,” he said, asking for perseverance. “[This is] a call to each and every one of you for the need to rebuild this moment and find a definitive way to achieve a democratic transition.”

There’s certainly a feeling in Venezuela that a new cycle is about to begin as Joe Biden takes over as President of the United States, offering a potential reset in relations. But it’s still unclear whether that means more US engagement with the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, or an even tougher stance towards his regime.

And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there might not be room for Guaidó in that cycle.