Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro tightened his grip on the nation’s institutions Tuesday as a legislature packed with his loyalists took their seats in what was widely considered the country’s last democratic institution.
The new lawmakers marched to the legislative palace carrying framed images of South American independence hero Simón Bolivar and the late Hugo Chavez.
“Long live the Bolivarian revolution!” they shouted after entering the building.
Analysts fear the Maduro-backed National Assembly - elected in a December vote widely decried as a farce - could be used to crack down on government detractors. It also poses a new challenge for the opposition, which boycotted the election and is vowing to continue operating a separate congress.
Up in the air is whether the nearly 60 nations that rallied behind opposition leader Juan Guaidó after declaring himself the country’s rightful president in 2019 will continue to maintain their support after his term expires Tuesday. Guaidó contends he and the other opposition lawmakers should still be considered the country’s legitimate National Assembly. They held a virtual installation ceremony on Tuesday.
“We are here for our people,” he said.
The development comes as a new U.S. administration is set to take office and the opposition’s efforts to oust Maduro steadily flounder. Meanwhile, Maduro will likely use the legislature to try to push forward his agenda, skirt U.S. sanctions and project an image on the international stage of institutional legitimacy.
“It will be necessary for the international community, and particularly for the European community, to come out again in favor of recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with IHS Markit consultancy. “Much of this will depend on what the Joe Biden administration does.”
Questions about Guaidó’s future
Guaidó’s recognition by the U.S. and other nations as Venezuela’s “interim president” has rested on his position as president of the National Assembly.
Claiming that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate, he swore himself into office before tens of thousands filling the streets of Caracas nearly two years ago. For months, he inspired droves of Venezuelans to protest against Maduro, who has steadily imposed an autocratic rule marked by corruption and economic calamity.
Even before the pandemic, Venezuela was experiencing an economic downturn worse than the U.S. Great Depression. The U.S. is offering a $15 million reward for Maduro’s arrest and has indicted him on charges of narcoterrorism.
While he remains deeply unpopular, Guaidó has been unable to convince the military to turn against Maduro or pressure the regime into holding a new presidential election.
Analysts believe that nations like the U.S. that have recognized Guaidó are likely to continue backing him - but may be reluctant to do much beyond statements of support.
Biden has called Maduro a “dictator” but not yet laid out his Venezuela strategy.
The immediate reaction among the international community was mixed. Canada, Colombia and the Trump administration vowed to keep recognizing both Guaidó and the opposition-controlled National Assembly. The European Union and others in Latin America were silent. Meanwhile, Uruguay struck a middle ground, saying it won’t recognize the new legislature - but avoided any mention of Guaidó.
“They will continue adopting a rhetoric posture in support of Guaidó’s political figure, but the constitutionality of his position, as interim president, now is not all that clear,” Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. said, adding that opposition parties seem to be at their weakest point in two years and that Maduro appears to have consolidated his power despite international pressure.
Maduro warns of ‘public trial’
In the short term, analysts say Maduro could use the new assembly - whose members will include his wife and son - to follow through on longstanding threats to jail opposition lawmakers no longer protected by legislative immunity.
In recent months, the socialist leader has floated the idea of holding a “public trial” to try Guaidó for alleged but unspecified acts of corruption.
“My hand will not shake to act steadfastly in accordance to the law and justice,” Maduro said in a state television broadcast.
Maduro has long threatened to arrest Guaidó, who has defied bans prohibiting him from leaving the country and encouraged the military to revolt. But with his powerful international backing, the government has refrained from arresting him.
“The regime knows that it is not yet in its best interest to jail Guaidó,” said Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “But we will see more actions of intimidation and more general repression, specifically against National Assembly deputies that decide to continue in the country.”
In his virtual session Tuesday, Guaidó said he wouldn’t bend to any threats.
“Again and again the dictator has stated he will jail us,” he said. “First message to Maduro: We are here, standing up.”
Opposition’s internal squabbling mounts
The Guaidó-led National Assembly voted to extend their period for one more year in late December, contending that the legislative election was illegitimate.
Key opposition leaders were barred from running and the pro-Maduro Supreme Court took control of several major political parties. Opposition lawmakers refused to participate, instead holding a referendum declaring Maduro’s rule illegitimate.
They are promising to continue to meet virtually.
“To leave the country without the only legitimately elected institution runs contrary to reestablishing the constitutional order,” Guaidó wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “We’d distance ourselves from the possibility of a solution to the crisis, which is through free presidential and parliamentary elections.”
Still, there have been signs from within the opposition that Guaidó does not enjoy the same support he did two years ago. Lawmakers with Democratic Action, the country’s second-largest opposition party, recently abstained from voting on whether to extend the legislature’s mandate. A handful of lawmakers have decided not to continue in their posts.
In an editorial in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo titled “We can’t be like them,” opposition lawmaker Stalin Gonzalez said a “profound revision of our fight and efforts taken over the last five years” is needed.
“Unity is an important value, but accompanied by clear and credible ideas,” he wrote.
The Maduro-backed National Assembly, meanwhile, will likely struggle to gain international recognition beyond traditional allies like Russia, China and Cuba, said José Vicente Carrasquero, a Venezuelan political science professor.
Still, some nations might be convinced that with the National Assembly’s approval, they have sufficient grounds to execute long-term loans, providing a direly needed lifeline to the cash-strapped nation.
“They might be sufficiently convinced that the approvals by the new National Assembly guarantee the validity of those debts in the long term,” Carrasquero said. “It’s a risk for any country or creditor to lend money to Maduro.”
Camille Rodríguez Montilla contributed to this report from Caracas, Venezuela.