Venezuela’s Guaidó faces key test in leadership vote

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó faces a major test of his leadership Sunday as he asks lawmakers to re-endorse his flagging campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly will decide whether to keep Guaidó as its leader for a second year in a special session inaugurating the final year of its 2015-2020 legislative period.

The weeks leading up to Sunday’s vote were marked by tension, with the opposition denouncing a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaidó — an outcome that would’ve embarrassed the 36-year-old lawmaker who has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 nations.

The harassment continued up until the last minute.

In a dramatic standoff, police officers wearing anti-riot helmets and flanked by metal barricades initially blocked several lawmakers from reaching the neo-classical legislature in downtown Caracas.

Amid bouts of shoving and political sloganeering, security forces demanded that each lawmaker present their credentials, arguing they were under orders to deny entry to several lawmakers banned from carrying out their duties by the loyalist supreme court.

“Is your family in Venezuela?” Guaidó asked the young police officers, who stood firmly in nervous silence.

“Today you’re complicit with the dictatorship, you’re complicit with those who are responsible for the hunger inside Venezuela,” he added. He was eventually allowed though the police line.

Support for Guaidó inside the opposition has also taken a hit after several minority parties in November splintered off to create a separate bloc to negotiate directly with Maduro — something that Guaidó has refused, arguing that talks are simply a time-buying exercise aimed at keeping Maduro in power.

Reflecting those divisions, a small group of opposition lawmakers proposed an alternative slate to take over leadership responsibilities from Guaidó. They argue that even in the face of defeat, Guaidó has stubbornly stuck to his plan of removing Maduro, putting his political ambitions above the needs of Venezuelans who have largely tuned out from the political fight while enduring an economy in shambles and under stiff U.S. sanctions.

“In 2019 you represented the hopes of the nation, but today you’re its biggest deception,” said José Brito, one of a handful of lawmakers who have betrayed Guaido amid accusations they used their position to enrich themselves and do the bidding of Maduro and his allies. “You’re a dream converted into a nightmare whose time has run out.”

While Guaidó is expected to win re-election, he faces a bigger challenge articulating a fresh vision for removing Maduro.

“The big question for this year is whether Guaidó will be able to use his waning political strength to guide his coalition through such a rocky period,” said Geoff Ramsey, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Opposition unity is already fraying at the edges, and the armed forces appear less likely than ever to abandon Maduro.”

Guaidó declared presidential powers over Venezuela on Jan. 23, 2019, saying Maduro’s reelection was illegitimate because the most popular opposition parties and political leaders had been disqualified from running.

Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years. Critics blame the plunge on years of failed socialist rule and corruption, while Maduro’s allies say U.S. sanctions are taking a toll on the economy. The South American nation’s 30 million people suffer soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.

An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivaling war-torn Syria.

Maduro, who took over after the 2013 death of former President Hugo Chávez, says Guaidó is a puppet of the United States. Maduro also says he’s determined to win control of the National Assembly in elections later this year.

“Despite perversions of the imperialist United States against Venezuela during 2019, we’ve managed to hold onto our independence, peace and stability,” Maduro tweeted. “I know that in 2020, with all of our efforts we will enjoy more economic prosperity.”

The two men remain locked in a power struggle. However, Maduro maintains military backing and control over most branches of the government, despite the deepening crisis and hard-hitting financial sanctions from the United States.

Guaidó says he’s confident he will maintain his seat as head of the congress and press ahead with the campaign to oust Maduro.

Weeks ahead of the vote deciding Guaidó’s leadership, the opposition-dominated congress changed its rules, allowing lawmakers who have fled Venezuela for fear of persecution by Maduro’s government to debate and vote from a distance. U.S. officials recently brought several key opposition leaders to Washington to discuss strategies for rallying around Guaidó.

Ramsey said this is an important moment for Venezuela’s opposition.

“Guaidó will have to not only re-energize his base and convince them to stay engaged, but keep his coalition in line as well,” he said. “And the clock is ticking.”