World

Months after failing to oust Maduro, Guaido has few cards left to play — and not long to play them

A bid by opposition lawmakers to oust Nicholas Maduro as Venezuela’s president has sputtered amid a corruption scandal, a lack of support from the oil-rich country’s powerful military and what appears to be reduced interest from Washington.

Oil-rich country's military continues to back incumbent amid apparent loss of interest in Washington

Juan Guaido speaks during a conference in Caracas on June 26. His movement to oust Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro has sputtered in recent weeks, analysts say. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

A bid by opposition lawmakers to oust Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela's president has sputtered amid a corruption scandal, a lack of support from the oil-rich country's powerful military and what appears to be reduced interest from Washington.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who was recognized as Venezuela's interim president in January by opposition lawmakers along with Canada, the U.S. and most Western countries, continues to consider himself the country's rightful leader.

But he has no real power to enact legislation, leverage state resources or control the security forces. At Miraflores Palace, Venezuela's White House, Maduro remains in command. 

Guaido's attempt to oust Maduro in a putsch on April 30 faltered, and for now he doesn't have many new cards to play.

"It's sort of a stalemate at this point," said Timothy Gill, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina who studies Venezuela. "There is a sense Maduro is going to stick around longer than many might have expected."

Venezuelan authorities said Wednesday they uncovered another attempted assassination plot targeting Maduro and other senior officials, but despite a previous drone attack and other moves, the government has weathered the storm so far. The country's powerful military, which controls vast swaths of the economy, continues to back Maduro. 

'Sort of a pause'

U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly lost interest in Venezuela, according to sources cited by the Washington Post.

He is said to have believed toppling Maduro would be an easy foreign policy win and has virtually ceased mentioning the country on Twitter or in speeches, as military tensions with Iran mount and trade battles with China fester. 

Venezuelans cross into Colombia in 2018. More than four million Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years amid shortages of basic food supplies and medicines, violent crime and political unrest, the UN says. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela who pleaded guilty to lying to the U.S. Congress about covert financing to contra rebels in Nicaragua in the 1980s, said on Tuesday that Trump remains committed to ousting Maduro.

"The notion that there is at the highest levels of the government a diminution of interest is just simply false," Abrams told reporters. 

James Roberts, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank where Abrams has worked and which has hosted U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, said "there is sort of a pause right now" regarding Washington and Caracas.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland continues to tweet about Venezuela regularly. She discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington on June 13 and again with Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on June 21.

Refugee exodus

Aside from direct U.S. military intervention, which most analysts believe is unlikely for now, there isn't a lot more Trump can do at this point, said Gill. 

Washington has already imposed its "nuclear option" of heavy sanctions on Venezuela's crucial oil industry, he said, accelerating a drop in exports and government revenue — and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

Meanwhile, the exodus from the country continues, along with dire shortages of basic food products and medicine, and endemic levels of violent crime. Approximately one million Venezuelans have fled their country since November, the UN said recently.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, left, is greeted by Maduro at Miraflores Palace in Caracas on June 21. The UN's top human rights official visited Venezuela amid heightened international pressure on Maduro. (Ariana Cubillos/The Associated Press)

Venezuelans now account for one in five new asylum claims globally, according to the UN, surpassing war-torn nations like Syria and Afghanistan.  

Despite the dire situation on the ground, the government and opposition remain entrenched in their positions. 

Talks between the government and Guaido's team took place in Norway last month. Another round of negotiations aimed at breaking the political standoff is slated to start next week, likely in Barbados, according to sources cited by The Associated Press on Saturday.

"People need to have strategic patience when it comes to dialogue like this," said Paula Garcia Tufro, deputy director of the Latin American program at the Atlantic Council, a research group based in Washington, D.C., that opposes Maduro.

"In terms of the current stalemate, the interim government [led by Guaido] also sees an incentive in coming to the table."

Corruption scandal

Reports and denials of the U.S. losing interest in the situation come as Guiado's team grapples with a corruption investigation.

Earlier this month, anti-Maduro news outlet the PanAm Post reported that tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for defecting Venezuelan soldiers in Colombia were stolen by Guaido's emissaries in the country. The money was allegedly spent at fancy nightclubs and high-end hotels. 

People collect water falling from a leaking pipeline on the bank of the Guaire River during a blackout back in March. Rolling blackouts affect access to running water in Caracas. (Fernando Llano/The Associated Press)

"Allegations of corruption are clearly of great concern to the interim government and Guaido himself," said Tufro. "It is clearly a setback from a PR perspective — it's not good optically or in practice."

Guaido has launched an investigation, as have Colombian prosecutors. 

According to the watchdog group Transparency International, Venezuela is perceived as one of the world's most corrupt countries.

Guaido and opponents of Maduro have consistently rallied against government corruption as a cause of the country's suffering. Having his allies implicated in a scandal — especially one involving money destined for military defectors, a key plank of the opposition's broader plan to take power — is particularly troublesome. 

"They need to be clear in demonstrating that they are not the corrupt officials of the past," Tufro said. "They are taking the right first couple of steps."

 Amid the opposition's inability to oust Maduro, Guaido's support has declined, according to some public opinion data. 

In a poll conducted earlier this month, Datincorp, a firm with links to the opposition, found 36 per cent of Venezuelans recognized Guaido as the head of state, down from 49 per cent in February. More than 40 per cent recognized Maduro as president. 

Opinion polls in Venezuela are often unreliable, but few dispute that Guaido's momentum has stalled. 

"If Guaido is going to be successful, it will have to be in the next six months," said James Roberts of the Heritage Foundation. "Legally, his interim presidency ends at the end of the year."

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