Maduro Is More Powerful Than Ever as Venezuela Collapses

Eduard Freisler
·9 min read
Carolina Cabral/Getty
Carolina Cabral/Getty

It became a favorite shouting game on the streets of Caracas. Someone would randomly holler President Nicolás Maduro’s name and people nearby would roar back “motherf**ker”!

Not any more. This gleeful verbal exchange between total strangers from a year ago is now regarded as a criminal behavior under the recently established Law against Hatred. The so-called Esquinas de Ideas (Corners of Ideas), where opponents used to tear into the country’s leader, are mostly gone. So are the fiery speeches of dissent in the National Assembly.

It appears that political and civic opposition has completely retreated from the public spaces all around Venezuela.

In this vacuum, Maduro’s allies talk aggressively about the radical social changes they plan to implement while also issuing dark threats against their opponents. These Chavistas—what Maduro supporters call themselves—regained absolute control of the National Assembly following the Dec. 6 elections, which were boycotted by the opposition and not recognized as legitimate by most Western countries, including the U.S. The opposition, calling the election fraudulent, effectively lost the last democratic institution in the country.

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Opposition leader Juan Guaidó—once deliriously popular—has vowed to fight on, even if it would mean getting together with his fellow opposition lawmakers in parks, gymnasiums or backyards. However, many have gone underground and Guaidó is now in danger of becoming irrelevant.

The list of opposition setbacks over the past five years is a long one: a failed legislative referendum to depose Maduro, lack of military support for an uprising, street protests lasting over 100 days that ultimately went nowhere, and the failure of an interim government led by Guaidó.

At the beginning of his revolt, Guaidó’s popularity hovered over 70 percent. He had the backing of 60 countries around the world—including the U.S. and much of Europe—which recognized him as Venezuela's rightful president. But as the opposition fizzled, the Venezuelan public has lost faith. “The opposition leading figures have only around a 25 percent approval rating, including Guaidó and [Leopoldo] López,” says Luis Vicente León, a sociologist and a director of Datanálisis, a major polling firm based in Caracas.

Just over two months ago, López—another key resistance leader and longtime political prisoner whose followers have built a Nelson Mandela-like aura around him—escaped to Madrid. He now lives in exile in Spain.

The loss of influence by López and Guaidó, combined with the fact that the resistance does not control any public institutions anymore, has led to the near-complete immobilization of the opposition and deeply damaged its reputation.

“The opposition tried everything there was but nothing worked out,” asserts Alonso Moleiro, an influential columnist and political analyst based in Caracas. “The regime now feels powerful and will probably impose its authority with an iron fist.”

Back in December 2015, the opposition swept socialists from the National Assembly in a landslide electoral win. The incoming lawmakers were darlings of millions of Venezuelans who saw in them a legendary generation that was about to liberate Venezuela from Maduro's socialistic regime.

They peaked with the meteoric rise of Guaidó. On Jan. 23, 2019, this young lawmaker boldly called Maduro a usurper and proclaimed himself the interim president while out in the open on the street. Guaidó was at that time next in line for the presidency as President of the National Assembly. He dazzled countless Venezuelans with this move, as well as many international leaders, who recognized him as the president of Venezuela. (U.S. President Joe Biden will reportedly follow suit; his support might save Guaidó from prison, at least for the time being.)

Today, Guaidó is without public office and shackled by a record of failed strategies and even corruption allegations. The euphoric public embrace came crashing down and now Guaidó and other opposition politicians face not only a big decline in popular support but also dwindling numbers. Dozens from the resistance have fled into exile.

This has created tremendous tension between those who have escaped and those who have remained, analysts say. The lawmakers who are still in the country and have decided to keep challenging the government face both a real possibility of a government crackdown as well as continued economic hardship. Opposition lawmakers in Venezuela never made any money, as they were labeled early on in their tenure as illegitimate by the Supreme Court, which is stacked with Maduro’s allies. They were stripped of their powers in March 2016.

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But those abroad do get paid. As part of Guaidó’s exiled government they make money from funds Guaidó has received from the U.S and other Western countries. And no secret agents constantly hound them as they do members of the resistance in Venezuela.

There is also a divide about the best strategy against Maduro going forward. “Leaders abroad favor more sanctions, isolation and international pressure. But those inside Venezuela feel they need to reassess this strategy, maybe set the bar lower and make the demand something other than Maduro’s exit, at least as a starting point,” says Risa Grais-Targow, a Latin American analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy based in New York. “This split in strategy between moderates and hardliners in the opposition will continue to widen,” she predicts.

No wonder. If anti-Maduro lawmakers inside Venezuela were to call now for further economic sanctions or even invasion by Western countries to topple Maduro, they could easily face a one-way ticket to prison.

Chavistas in the National Assembly have wasted no time in moving against the opposition. During their first session they set up a commission that will investigate the alleged crimes of Juan Guaidó and his deputies. And most recently, Chavistas in the National Assembly have asked the Venezuelan Attorney General to issue an arrest warrant against Guaidó’s lawmakers.

Iris Valera, a radical Chavista and newly named vice-president of the National Assembly, has also called for stripping citizenship from those Venezuelans who have left the country as well as expropriating land and possessions from some of the emigrants.

Some political analysts point to López's flight to Spain as indicative of this rift within the opposition as it tries to grapple with the current political dominance of the Chavistas.

“Leopoldo López felt he was useless as a prisoner and decided to take his fight to Europe where he can, among other things, keep international support behind Guaidó and away from other opposition leaders,” notes sociologist Luis Felipe León.

Last October, after López had spent a total of six years in prison, under house arrest, and in diplomatic asylum in the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Caracas, he escaped and fled the country. This was another blow to the psyche of the opposition supporters.

Previously, López's supporters kept declaring that this leader was walking in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela. López had declared he would leave prison only when all other political prisoners were free and the government had met his demands.

In November 2019, López told me that he was ready to sacrifice his best years for the country's freedoms and democracy. Along with Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., Lopéz mentioned another hero of his, the Czechoslovakian dissident and playwright Václav Havel, who became his country’s first democratically elected president in 40 years after the fall of communism.

López talked to me, while he was hiding in the Spanish embassy in Caracas, about his admiration for Havel. “In prison, I read several of Havel's books, among them Letters to Olga. There is one episode that left a huge impression on me. He writes about never giving up, never kneeling down before the dictatorship, that the prison for him was another form of resistance. I have taken the same path.”

But last month from Madrid, López told PBS NewsHour that being cut off from the outside world left him impotent and so he decided to flee. “I was increasingly more isolated and I needed to contribute from the outside.”

López also said that in Venezuela, life is often like a rollercoaster between hope and despair and that the opposition will bounce back again from the current period of despair.

But, at least for now, Maduro appears to be firmly entrenched, successfully beating back countless attempts by the opposition to dislodge him. At the same time, the U.S. oil sanctions against Venezuela will probably stay in place for now. But hope that Maduro’s lack of cash might lead to his downfall has repeatedly been proven wrong.

On the other hand, being cash-poor is still a weakness for the current regime. Some in the opposition claim that Maduro won’t have enough money to bribe his cronies to keep them on his side and that the powerful and essential generals could at some point turn on Maduro. So the thinking and the hoping goes.

“Even though the economy has deteriorated and the pie they all share has shrunk for the military leaders, it is better to be in power with less money than on the outside with no money and in jail,” argues the analyst Risa Grais-Targow. “This regime proved to be remarkably resilient.”

Meanwhile many Venezuelans feel abandoned and left on their own in a country where food, medicine and fuel is scarce and power outages occur on a daily basis. Many feel like refugees within their own country. Aurelio Navarro, a farmer, has found solace and refuge on his farm in a picturesque area called Galipán which is nestled in the mountain range Ávila.

From one side of his plot of land, he enjoys the azure waters of the Caribbean sea, on the other side, the thick foliage of tropical vegetation. Navarro basks in the calm of his paradise.

But don’t talk politics in his presence. The topic immediately puts him in two different emotional mindsets: crippling fear and heavy doses of nostalgia. The first feeling is triggered by the abuses of Maduro’s regime, the second one by Guaidó’s ineffectual opposition.

“All my life I’ve been waiting for a leader I could fall in love with,” says Navarro. “It happened with Guaidó but he failed and broke my heart,”

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