President Donald Trump’s campaign to oust Nicolas Maduro hit a major snag on Sunday as supporters of Venezuela’s authoritarian president tried to politically sideline the man whom Trump has recognized as the country’s legitimate leader.
The troubles underscored the difficulties in the U.S. strategy toward Venezuela nearly a year after Trump demanded that Maduro leave office and ramped up sanctions on his government. The strongman remains ensconced in power, with backing from U.S. adversaries Russia and Cuba.
On Sunday, the U.S. expected Juan Guaido, 36, to be re-elected as the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly. That position gave Guaido grounds to make the legal claim that he is Venezuela’s “interim president” because Maduro’s last election victory was marred by fraud.
But, according to media reports, security forces loyal to Maduro blocked Guaido and many of his allies from entering the building. One video showed Guaido trying to scale the gate and being pulled down by security forces, some of whom carried shields to push back the crowd.
The vote that followed gave the Assembly leader’s post to Luis Parra, a rival of Guaido’s, according to media reports. In the extraordinary confusion, some observers insisted there was no quorum for a vote. Parra, described in some accounts as a “dissident opposition politician,” has been accused in a recent corruption scandal, and U.S. officials suspect he is allying himself with Maduro in trying to take over the Assembly.
U.S. officials denounced the events and said they would not recognize Parra’s claim.
Guaido “remains #Venezuela’s interim president under its constitution,” tweeted Michael Kozak, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. “This morning’s phony National Assembly session lacked a legal quorum. There was no vote.”
Later Sunday, Guaido gathered lawmakers in a separate location to cast what the opposition said was the real vote, which he won easily. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent out a statement on Sunday night congratulating him on his re-election.
Guaido’s claim to be “interim president” of Venezuela is recognized by the U.S. and more than 50 other countries, many of them in Latin America. The coalition has been alarmed by Venezuela’s descent into autocracy and economic despair under Maduro.
U.S. officials say they retain confidence in Guaido, notwithstanding fractures and scandals in the Venezuelan opposition and despite widespread frustration that a year’s worth of pressure, including a failed high-profile uprising attempt, has not led to a change in government in Caracas.
In an interview ahead of Sunday’s vote, Elliott Abrams, the Trump administration’s special representative for Venezuela, stressed that Guaido is the Venezuelan opposition’s choice for interim president and that the U.S. backs him as a result.
“We continue to support him fully,” Abrams said. “There is no reduction in support at all in the United States.”
He also confirmed that the Trump administration intends to ramp up the economic pressure on Maduro and his allies in the months ahead. That will primarily involve imposing more economic sanctions on individuals, companies and other entities linked to the Maduro government.
Companies in other countries that do business with the Maduro government may face new U.S. sanctions, too. Venezuela is a top oil producer, making it a tempting partner for nations seeking energy resources. The U.S. has sanctioned PDVSA, a major Venezuelan state-owned oil firm.
Abrams dismissed claims that the United States is running out of targets to sanction, saying that the Trump administration keeps getting “more and more information from cooperative governments and individuals” about new targets tied to the Maduro government.
The U.S. also hopes to see the European Union and other Latin American countries step up their own imposition of sanctions on Maduro. Abrams downplayed frustrations with the lagging international sanctions effort, noting that unlike the U.S., many other countries have not traditionally used sanctions and thus lack the necessary expertise and architecture.
“It’s slow because it’s new,” he said.
Guaido’s ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, echoed Abrams’ assertions that U.S. support for Guaido remains strong nearly a year into the anti-Maduro campaign. Guaido remains a popular figure across Venezuela despite the fact that he has little access to the media institutions under Maduro’s thumb, Vecchio said.
He and others further pointed to what’s being called “Operation Scorpion” — an effort to bribe, imprison and otherwise cajole National Assembly members not to back Guaido — as a sign of Maduro’s feelings of insecurity. The brute force used to block Guaido from the Assembly on Sunday suggests that Maduro knew the opposition leader had the votes he needed.
“If Guaido was weak, the question would be why Maduro is doing everything to interfere with Guaido’s reelection” as assembly leader, Vecchio said.
Under Maduro, who took power in 2013, Venezuela’s economy has crumbled amid allegations of graft and drug trafficking in the government’s top echelons. A humanitarian crisis — people can barely afford food — has led millions of Venezuelans to flee to nearby countries.
One reason Maduro remains in power is support from Venezuela’s military, whose senior ranks have stuck by him despite entreaties from Maduro opponents.
Abrams acknowledged that past outreach by the U.S. and the opposition to Venezuelan military officers and soldiers “obviously was not sufficient.” The trick is figuring out who will have the most impact in such outreach, he said, pointing to potential liaisons such as retired military officers from Latin American countries.
Another group that the United States wants to peel away from Maduro are the “Chavistas.” These are Venezuelans who support the left-wing, socialist ideology that kept Maduro’s predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez, in power for years. Chavez, who died in 2013 while battling cancer, endorsed Maduro as his successor.
Abrams argued that many Chavistas recognize that Maduro’s corruption and economic mismanagement have badly damaged their movement’s reputation. And while Abrams stressed that the United States does not believe a socialist approach will rebuild Venezuela, he added that what matters is to have a legitimate political process.
“Venezuelans need to have the chance to vote,” he said. “If Chavistas win a free election, we will respect the outcome of that election. We’re not trying to destroy their future. We’re trying to create a future for Venezuela.”
While U.S. interests in Venezuela are many — including its oil — Trump administration officials have also said Washington has an interest in ensuring that the Western Hemisphere remains a stronghold for democracy. Trump’s dislike of Maduro strikes an odd note, however, given his affinity for strongmen in other countries, including President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Former U.S. officials who have dealt with Venezuela said it was clear that the Trump administration’s hopes that Maduro would quickly resign have been tempered over the past year, and that it is still trying to properly calibrate its policy toward the Latin American nation.
Trump himself appears less interested in the issue than in early 2019, when on Jan. 23 he dropped his recognition of Maduro as Venezuela’s true leader. Back then, Trump even nodded to the idea of U.S. military action in Venezuela.
As the months have worn on, the U.S. has sent mixed messages about whether it backs the opposition’s attempts to negotiate a political solution with Maduro, former U.S. officials said.
Now, “the trend lines point toward increasing authoritarian consolidation, a stronger Nicolas Maduro and a more fragmented opposition,” said Michael Camilleri, who served in the State Department and the National Security Council during the Obama administration. “Those in the opposition who had deluded themselves into thinking Trump was going to invade and solve all their problems are coming to the realization that’s not going to happen.”
In a sense, the status quo works for Trump politically.
As long as he maintains pressure on Maduro, he can use that to gain votes in Florida, a key 2020 swing state where many Venezuelan and Cuban exiles live, even if nothing changes on the ground in Caracas. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been particularly influential in urging Trump to stay tough on Maduro.
The Venezuelan autocrat, meanwhile, is outwardly striking a confident pose despite the sanctions and rhetorical fury from his giant neighbor in the north.
“I’m a man of dialogue!” Maduro tweeted on Thursday. “With Donald Trump or whoever governs the US: whenever, wherever and however [they] want, we’re ready for dialogue with respect, pride and dignity, to establish new basis of relations that will contribute to the stability of the region.”
But opposition leaders say they cannot see a viable Venezuelan future with Maduro in charge.
“He is in power, but he is far from governing,” Vecchio argued. “He is surviving and is unable to solve any problems, not even the basic ones. … He doesn’t have the support of the people.”