Venezuela's two presidents

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó was supposed to be the spearhead of a velvet revolution. Now 18 months on, and it looks like Nicolás Maduro's grip on power is as strong as ever
June 8, 2020

Shortly after midnight on 18th January, one of the two men who claims to be the president of Venezuela snuck by foot across the little-patrolled border into Colombia. The crossing, most often used by migrants and smugglers, can be made in minutes. At the other side of the frontier, Colombian intelligence officials were waiting for Juan Guaidó. Greeting him formally as “Señor Presidente,” they escorted him on to a government plane for the short flight to Bogotá.

Guaidó, who is banned from travelling by the regime of Venezuela’s other—de facto—president, Nicolas Maduro, was beginning a nine-country visit to the Americas and Europe. It was designed to cement his unusual status as head of state in the eyes of around 60 nations—yet not his own. The following day he was given a televised red-carpet reception by Colombia’s president Ivan Duque. Then he held talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who (not coincidentally) was in Bogotá attending a terrorism conference. Afterwards Guaidó flew overnight by private jet to London, where he held meetings with both foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Boris Johnson. In the following weeks, he went on to meet Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau, before ending his tour as a special guest at President Trump’s State of the Union address in Washington.

He then returned to Venezuela, arriving on a commercial flight at the main international airport of Caracas. The Maduro government sent an angry rent-a-mob to scream insults and jostle him as he emerged from the airport terminal. His ID card was confiscated by a junior immigration official.

Outside Venezuela, Guaidó might be fêted as a head of state, but at home he is subject to the whims of a regime that is convinced that the contest over who rules Venezuela is over.

Office without power

A year and a half after Guaidó launched his bid to topple a regime that has driven a once-rich country to penury, Venezuela’s alternative president finds himself caught somewhere between hope and reality. So too are the governments that support him. If ruling a country is about the levers you control, Maduro still has them all: the army, the judiciary, the electoral authority, even the flailing economy. Guaidó is left with a title, but little else.

The original plan was very different. Guaidó was supposed to be the head of a velvet revolution, a temporary “stalking horse” politician. He was meant to pave the way for Maduro’s relatively dignified exit, by ensuring fair elections were held before Venezuela could be returned to some sort of normality. It may now seem like wishful thinking. But there were plenty of believers at the time.

It was in the middle of 2018 that the idea of forming a rival, internationally-backed government in Venezuela was first hatched. Despite presiding over one of the worst-ever slumps in the economic history of the world, Maduro had just won re-election.

He did, and does, have some real support—perhaps a fifth of Venezuelans, who are largely kept loyal by fond memories of the predecessor who anointed him, Hugo Chávez. But Maduro’s victory was, on all the evidence, fixed. Several opposition leaders had been banned from participating; voters were given strong hints that if they voted against the government they might lose their food rationing cards; the electoral authority was blatantly biased; and rules on equal access to the media were ignored. In the middle of the steepest recession the country had ever seen, Maduro claimed to have coasted home with 67 per cent of the vote.

But his victory meant there would be no respite in the economic meltdown. That collapse had been initially triggered by the 2014 crash in the price of oil, Venezuela’s only significant export. The underlying economy, riddled since Chávez’s time with corruption and inefficiency (which had been largely obscured by the high price of oil) was barely functioning. By January 2019, as Maduro donned the Presidential sash once again at an inauguration ceremony boycotted by most western nations, millions of Venezuelans faced more years of not just penury, but hunger.

Confronted with economic collapse, Maduro chose to continue headlong with the interventionist and distributive policies of his popular mentor, simply ignoring the cold reality that there was no longer any largesse to splash around. He took the view that inflation, which in 2018 was heading for 10,000 per cent (it would eventually reach over two million per cent), was a phenomenon that could be defeated by legislation. But the price controls he imposed led to massive shortages, and eventually Soviet-style bread queues. An exodus began—by mid-2019 close to 10 per cent of the Venezuelan population had emigrated.

All of Venezuela’s neighbours, most notably Colombia, feared the effect of mass migration on their own societies. President Trump was also beginning to take an interest, not least because of the concern of members of his golf club in Doral, Florida, an area where many Venezuelan expats live. At one point he had to be talked out of hot-headed plans to move in with force.

[su_pullquote align="right"]“Guaidó was supposed to be the head of a velvet revolution; the politician who would pave the way for Maduro’s dignified exit”[/su_pullquote]

But rather than openly depose Maduro, the opposition initially hoped to sideline him. The idea was developed in 2018 during a series of lengthy videoconferences between some veteran anti-Chávismo politicians. The group’s most prominent participant was Leopoldo López. A popular, Harvard-educated, former Caracas mayor, he had been imprisoned and then placed under house arrest since 2014 on (largely bogus) charges of inciting violence. Despite his detention he was able to communicate with the other leaders including Julio Borges, an Oxford graduate, lawyer and politician who in 2018 had escaped the threat of jail to exile in Colombia.

Borges, a wily negotiator, led moves to reach out to western governments. He was assisted by Luis Almagro, a former Uruguayan foreign minister and longtime foe of Maduro who was serving as secretary general of the Organisation of American States. Almagro helped rally Latin American support behind the idea that something must be done, and found a ready audience in countries—including Colombia, Brazil and Argentina—where politics had recently shifted to the right.

And in the Trump administration there was a hunger to find a solution to the “Venezuela problem.” In 2017, López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, a former reality TV star, had visited the White House, delivering a speech on the appalling human rights situation in Venezuela and reportedly impressing Trump during a brief photocall. So when, in late 2018, during a series of visits to the United States, Borges presented his scheme to wrong-foot the Maduro administration, he found a receptive audience. He not only won the backing of prominent politicians outside of government, primarily Florida Senator Marco Rubio, but also the then-national security adviser, John Bolton. Both of these men helped swing Trump behind the idea.

The plan made use of a paragraph in the Venezuelan constitution which declared that in the event that the presidency was “vacant” (the opposition argued that included a scenario where a president was squatting in power after an illegal election), then the head of Venezuela’s parliament, its national assembly, would take over. Since 2016 the parliament had been under opposition control, following what was widely viewed as the last fair election in Venezuela. That result had infuriated Maduro, who soon set up his own, alternative rubber-stamp parliament, the Constituent Assembly.

The accidental president

The rival, powerless National Assembly still continued to meet, and its leadership rotated between the four main opposition parties. In January 2019 it was the turn of Voluntad Popular, or VP, the more confrontational party of the group, founded by López, to head the assembly. López himself was out of the running to take the role, as he was under house arrest. The next in line in the VP’s hierarchy, Freddy Guevara, was also unavailable: he was in hiding at the home of the Chilean ambassador in Caracas.

So the baton passed to what was effectively the third choice: Juan Guaidó, 36, an affable, garrulous, if slightly awkward junior member of parliament. He took over the Presidency of the assembly at the start of 2019, when few Venezuelans had ever heard of him. But, as one senior opposition leader quipped, “his anonymity at least meant nobody hated him.”

Guaidó was one of a generation of Venezuelan opposition politicians who cut their teeth during the 2007 protests against Chávez’s efforts at constitutional reform, which began the process of concentrating power in the President’s hands. His unremarkable background (his mother was a teacher, his father a pilot) made him stand out in an opposition leadership which was still dominated by the Caracas moneyed elite. A trained engineer, he is not a natural public speaker; he has a tendency to mumble his words and convolute thoughts. Maduro mocked him for his youthfulness: “he’s just a kid,” he would say.

But in those early weeks of 2019, Guaidó successfully rallied long-depressed opposition spirits, by declaring that Maduro was a “usurper” and not a president. He began to organise open-air town-hall style meetings, and proposed a simple three-point plan: the end of the “usurpation,” transitional government, and free elections. Most mutinously, he openly called on the military to consider its position. By mid-January last year, his political meetings were drawing huge crowds, with onlookers, some draped in the Venezuelan flag, lining rooftops to catch a glimpse of the man they dared believe could be their saviour.

“Few Venezuelans had heard of Guaidó. But, as one senior opposition leader quipped, ‘his anonymity at least meant nobody hated him’”

On 23rd January 2019, the rebel politician escalated his challenge. Apparently encouraged by the chants of the massive audience during one anti-government demonstration in Caracas, he solemnly raised the palm of his right hand, making the gesture of a swearing-in. “Before Almighty God,” he said, “I swear to assume the power… as President of Venezuela.” Within minutes (indicating it knew in advance) the US issued a statement saying it recognised him as the country’s legitimate leader. Maduro, said Washington, was from that moment onwards “the former President.”

European governments were caught unawares and had to hurriedly decide what to do. A senior European diplomat in Caracas told me that he sent a cable to his ministry that night cautioning that it was not clear whether Guaidó’s bold declaration would work or not. But momentum built, and soon dozens of democracies followed the lead of the US by recognising him as president. Among them before long were not only the major economies of South America, but also almost all the member states of the EU, including the UK.

But toppling a regime that still retained a hard core of political support, and apparent control of the armed forces, was never going to be a formality. Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based senior analyst at the Crisis Group, recalled watching events unfold with dismay. “This whole business of recognising Guaidó as president flew in the face of modern diplomatic practice and was a very unwise move,” he said. “It was predicated on the idea that there would be a swift victory. And, of course, if Maduro had fled and Guaidó was installed in the presidential palace everything would have worked out. But it didn’t happen that way.”

What instead followed was a series of promises by Guaidó that change was imminent. In February, he launched an attempt to bring in humanitarian aid, mostly provided by the US, over Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil. The idea was that hungry guards would wave the aid through, defying orders from their commander-in-chief, Maduro, and unleashing a mass rebellion. But the troops stayed loyal. None of the aid was let in. The incident was an early wake-up call that regime change was not going to be a pushover. One of the pretender’s most-repeated slogans, “Vamos bien”—“we are doing well”—began to be whispered on the streets as a sardonic jibe against him. The doubts grew.

Palace plots

What almost no Guaidó supporters were aware of, however, was that there was a parallel threat to Maduro—from the inside. In early 2019, the head of the Venezuelan Intelligence Service, Manuel Cristopher Figuera—who has since defected to the US—was allegedly holding conversations with very senior members of the Maduro government about ousting the President.

The rebellion was provoked by fears that total economic collapse was imminent. It would have been announced with a declaration by the Supreme Court that the Guaidó-led National Assembly should, with immediate effect, be recognised as the legitimate representative of the Venezuelan people. That would be followed by simultaneous declarations by the armed forces and the presidential guard that their institutions would respect the decision. At that point, Maduro’s security would be gravely compromised, giving him little option, it was hoped, but to flee into exile.

To this day, there are doubts as to how serious this plot was, and whether some of the players were bluffing. The principal source of our knowledge of the conspiracy is what Figuera has said in interviews—and he has, after all, sought safety in the US and had American sanctions dropped against him. Maduro himself says he was made aware of the plan in its early stages, and instructed his officials to infiltrate it. But the senior European diplomat in Caracas believes that mass defections were tantalisingly close, and that the episode left Maduro “really shocked.”

The original plan was to act on 1st May, the day the opposition had arranged a massive rally in Caracas. But fears that the regime might have cottoned on led to implementation being brought forward by a day. At dawn on 30th April, Guaidó and a few dozen rebel troops went to a bridge overlooking a military base in the (staunchly pro-opposition) east of the city, to try to provoke an uprising within the base. Hours earlier, with the assistance of Figuera, López had escaped his house arrest. On social media, Guaidó called for mass support on the streets.

Rumours swirled that a private jet was waiting at the Caracas international airport, ready to take Maduro into exile, probably in Cuba. From Washington, John Bolton, who had for weeks enjoyed publicly predicting the downfall of Venezuela’s leftist leadership, began directing a series of pointed tweets at senior officials in the regime. “This is your last chance,” he wrote. “Remove Maduro, and we will take you off our sanctions list. Stay with Maduro, and go down with the ship.” The plea was not heeded, with all senior officials (other than Figuera) instead pledging their loyalty to the President. The “great uprising” in tatters, by early afternoon, the rebel national guardsmen sought safety. López sheltered with his family in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, where he remains to this day.

The only participant who did not go into hiding was Guaidó himself. The regime has repeatedly threatened to imprison him but has, to date, refrained from doing so. It might be fearful of the cost of any international backlash, or, says Gunson of the Crisis Group, it perhaps prefers to watch the politician “drown in his own contradictions.” Instead, Maduro has taken action against those close to Guaidó. Following the failed uprising, parliamentary immunity was lifted from seven of his allies in the national assembly, including its vice president Edgar Zambrano, who was towed to prison after refusing to get out of his car. He remains in jail. Others are in exile.

Fantasy regime change

The failure of the 30th April plot led some of those allied to Guaidó to contemplate more desperate measures. In September, a team representing the man they still insisted on calling “President” met in Miami to consider a plan to capture Maduro. The group was led by JJ Rendón, a Venezuelan political consultant who had gained a reputation as the “Mr Fix-it” among Latin American politicians. Rendón successfully masterminded the presidential election campaigns of liberal centrists including Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico.

In a luxury high-rise apartment, they watched a PowerPoint presentation by a US special forces veteran, Jordan Goudreau. He proposed putting together an army of several hundred men, almost all Venezuelan military defectors, to seize Maduro, fly him out of the country, and install a government led by Guaidó. He said the cost would be an (oddly precise) $212,900,000.

The Guaidó team was impressed by the pitch, seemingly not put off by clear warning signs that Goudreau could be a fantasist. The former soldier’s email address included the numbers “007,” while his website featured him in various improbable Action Man poses, jumping out of aircraft and running up mountains. Nevertheless, Rendón signed a contract with the shaven-headed ex-Green Beret, which—in faux legalese detail—set the terms of a bespoke regime change.

Goudreau has since claimed that Guaidó also signed the document. He has produced a page containing his signature, and an audio recording where a man who sounds identical to the opposition leader, speaking broken English, appears to be agreeing to something, though exactly what is not clear.

Within weeks, Rendón said he began to mistrust Goudreau, who was allegedly demanding huge upfront payments and behaving “erratically.” The contract, the opposition claims, was terminated. But despite losing his client, Goudreau went ahead anyway, setting up training camps in Colombia and recruiting 60 or so mercenaries.

There was a further setback in the spring, when one of the plotters in Colombia, former Venezuelan general Clíver Alcalá, was indicted by the US for drug trafficking. The day before his voluntary extradition from Colombia to New York, he revealed details of the planned incursion, thus guaranteeing its failure. His motivation remains unclear, though it might have been a US-supported last-ditch effort to stop the mission going ahead by outing it. If so, it failed. Around 20 men, including two American former soldiers, set off for Venezuela, probably enticed by bounty money recently offered by Washington for the capture of several senior figures in the regime ($15m for Maduro, $10m for other leaders).

It was a disaster. Eight were killed when they attempted to reach the shore in a converted fishing boat, while the following day the two Americans and others were captured as their vessel drifted off a tourist beach. They have since been paraded on state television, as Maduro milks the farcical plot for all its propaganda worth.

The Trump administration has denied any “direct” involvement in the plan, though it must have been aware of it. “Guaidó is a US puppet, he would never get involved in that sort of thing alone,” speculates one formerly Caracas-based diplomat. Whatever the truth, the embarrassing episode left Guaidó appearing at best naive, and certainly weakened. Some senior figures in the opposition are now privately furious about his lack of judgment and beginning to wonder about his replacement.

Northern exposure

As for Maduro, his rule—albeit over the ruins of his country—appears more secure. “Those who thought that Maduro was going to be a short-term leader have repeatedly been disappointed,” Francisco Torrealba, the head of the socialist bloc in the National Assembly, and a personal friend of Maduro for over three decades, told me. He said the president’s training, as a bus driver and union leader, made him “understand Venezuelans,” in contrast to what he portrays as an aloof opposition leadership. Another politician who has worked closely with Maduro insists that the president’s television persona, which sometimes seems like the caricature of a comic-book dictator—with a Stalin moustache and apparently spur-of-the-moment legislation—is an act. The real Maduro he says, carefully advised by the Cuban government, is highly intelligent and “entirely ruthless.”

And, perhaps, lucky—the latest example of that being the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has provided the regime with the perfect excuse to impose a curfew on its citizens, reducing the risk of serious protests despite ongoing fuel shortages and collapsing public services. At the same time, Venezuela’s international isolation, and the very low number of incoming international flights, could just keep the disease in check—fortunate in a land where one third of its hospitals do not have reliable running water.

[su_pullquote align="right"]“Being your country’s alternative president is a miserable role when the actual president has all the power”[/su_pullquote]

Venezuela is, to give one measure of the collapse, now a country where once relatively well-paid doctors and nurses earn almost meaningless wages of less than £5 a month. Having overseen such ruin, Maduro is of course widely despised. And yet he clings on to a seemingly indestructible bedrock of support, mostly due to nostalgia for the way his predecessor managed, temporarily, to transform the lives of millions through social welfare programmes. These included free homes that were funded by the oil bonanza income that lubricated the Chavez years.

The elitist cast of the Caracas opposition also impedes its connection with Venezuela’s poor, and its American links look suspiciously unpatriotic to some voters. “The situation would be better if Chávez were here, he loved his people and gave his life for his country,” said Simon Morales, 70, a street vendor of bananas in Caracas. (Chávez died of cancer in 2013.) The opposition, he said, “just listens to the orders of the North [the US].”

That suspicion among those that still support the government, that Guaidó is an American imposition, has been helped by the opposition leader’s unapologetic support for every action the Trump administration takes. Although a recent survey suggested Venezuelans overwhelmingly oppose US sanctions, Guaidó has been a strong proponent of all of them, believing they offer political leverage.

But such leverage has abjectly failed to work, at least so far. Talks that took place last year between the government and the opposition went nowhere and are currently suspended. By this January, Maduro felt sufficiently strong to effectively confirm that he had no interest in reaching any accommodation. With the support of the national guard, a pro-government mob prevented Guaidó from entering his own national assembly, where he was due to be sworn in for another year as president. In surreal scenes, “President” Guaidó attempted, unsuccessfully, to scale the railings outside the parliament. Inside, another opposition MP, who is suspected of having been bought off by the regime, was declared the parliament’s new head.

Being your country’s alternative president—barred from your own office—is a miserable role when the actual president has the power and willingness to mercilessly cut you down to size. Several diplomatic sources in Caracas said Guaidó, without his closest allies, has recently seemed almost lonely, lingering late at evening meetings and receptions, “as if he has no home to go to,” said one. “He seems frustrated, worn down,” said another. “Yet he genuinely believes that the Maduro government cannot survive, and that eventually it will fall.”

But there will be a time limit on that prediction being fulfilled. The risk is growing that the man who once raised the hopes of millions of Venezuelans, and who even now is supported by most of the western world, will be remembered for a promise that failed, and for a presidency that in the end was make-believe.