The 2020 State of the Union was full of political gamesmanship. President Donald Trump gave an intense, theatrical speech followed by uproarious republican applause. The Democrats responded likewise, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi dramatically tearing up Trump’s written speech. Hidden in all this media coverage was the presence of Venezuela’s contested president Juan Guaidó. When he was mentioned, a moment of bipartisan support ensconced the Congress as he was applauded by members from both sides of the aisle.
Despite this unanimous applause, Guaidó’s house of cards has fallen. His presence at the State of the Union is emblematic of the weak position he is in. Unable to wrench the “other” Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro from the presidency in 2019, he has been forced to pander to foreign powers to remain relevant and preserve his legitimacy. Short of an improbable turn of events, Guaidó is unlikely to be the personality to dethrone the Chavista regime, if that will even occur.
Last year, the situation looked relatively bright for Guaidó. Returning to Caracas from a firestorm world tour where he met with numerous foreign leaders, he was greeted by thousands of chanting supporters. While there was a warrant from the supreme court for his arrest, Guaidó was fomenting the beginnings of a revolution against Maduro, and crucially, he had the momentum.
Fast forward a year, and this momentum is gone. After going on another world tour where he met with even more foreign leaders, he was greeted by less approving crowds. Instead of thousands of chanting supporters, he entered the country to a smaller group of supporters and detractors who engaged in minor scuffles in the backdrop to Guaidó’s arrival.
Guaidó’s popularity and power have plummeted over the past year. In a Meganálisis poll conducted December 2nd, slightly more than 10 percent of respondents approved of Guaidó. While only a single data point, the trend is indicative of Guaidó’s dissipating popularity. In contrast, a spate of polls last year showed more than 70 percent of Venezuelans recognizing Guaidó as president.
Furthermore, Guaidó’s claim to the presidency and the leadership of the National Assembly is being cut away from him. Regardless of the international support, Maduro has control of most of the country. Maduro can exert this authority because of his dominant control over the Venezuelan army. Guaidó may have the pulpit, but Maduro has the bullet.
Guaidó tried to wrest control of the military by appealing to their individual morals and by launching a popular uprising in April. However, the uprising failed to flip a substantial amount of soldiers, failed to gain momentum, and only cemented Guaidó’s subordinate power imbalance with Maduro. Ever since, Maduro has used a wide array of physical violence to silence Guaidó’s base, including the military to weaken the power of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, intelligence agents to arrest Guaidó’s inner circle, and gangs to break up protests and silence protestors.
In addition to Guaidó’s inability to exercise de facto presidential power, his legitimacy as the speaker of the National Assembly is also being undermined. In January, through a series of questionably ethical tactics, Luis Parra, a oncetime-ally of Guaidó was able to usurp the speakership of the National Assembly. While Parra isn’t blatantly supporting Maduro, he is in favor of reconciliation and preserving the current Maduro leadership. Guaidó responded to this by getting 100 National Assembly members to reaffirm their support for him as opposed to the supposed 81 members who elected Parra. Nevertheless, Guaidó has been forced to reassert his sole authority over the speakership while trying to gain legitimacy for the presidency. This, combined with previously mentioned unpopularity, and increased threats and arrests against Guaidó and his family, have restrained Guaidó’s ability to maintain or project his power.
One crucial factor preventing Guaidó from gaining more domestic support is his current international support. Guaidó has been trapped in a vicious balancing act that preserves and stunts his power. Essentially, as Guaidó’s domestic support decreases, he is forced to rely on foreign powers to create legitimacy and raise the moral, diplomatic, and economic cost of arresting him. However, this dependence on the international community reinforces the belief that he is a puppet for the western powers, draining his domestic support.
This cycle hasn’t always existed, but it is a logical continuation and synthesis of several trends. Since the Monroe doctrine, the US has intervened with the domestic politics of nearly every Latin American country, and on multiple occasions the effects of these interventions have been deleterious to Latin Americans. Thus most Latin nations, especially Venezuela, are historically wary of US intervention in the region. For example, in a 2018 poll, 35 percent of Venezuelans said they were against a foreign intervention to remove Maduro. Even when Maduro’s approval rating was abysmal, and the country had entered into a state of near collapse, a majority of Venezuelans rejected Western intervention.
This historic dislike of US intervention has been successfully played up by the Maduro regime, and ineffectively dispelled or justified by the Trump administration or Guaidó. A cursory look at Telesur, a pro-Maduro news agency, will find articles like “Venezuela Rejects US Attempted Coup and 'Puppet Government,'” and Maduro’s proxies consistently portray Guaidó as a US puppet.
While there isn’t any significant evidence to conclude that Guaidó is some sort of American asset, there hasn’t been a sincere effort to counteract these claims. In the wake of Guaidó’s April attempt to usurp the presidency, the White House released a video delivered by the at the time National Security Advisor John Bolton over Twitter to “all patriotic citizens of Venezuela.” In the video, Bolton calls for Guaidó to replace the Maduro regime. This, in addition to numerous visible, aggressive overtures of support for Guaidó and enthusiasm to end the Maduro regime may sincerely exist out of a desire to improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela, but are instead easily interpreted and amplified by Maduro as evidence of a continuous evil American intervention.
The presence of Guaidó at the State of the Union serves to play up this narrative pushed by Caracas. While Congress applauded, the narrative of Guaidó being a US puppet was only reinforced. Juan Guaidó may have strengthened American support for his presidential bid, but the optics of the event have likely led to a decrease in Guaidó’s domestic support. If Guaidó wants to be a Venezuelan president, he needs the support of the Venezuelan people, something he doesn’t have anymore.
This is Guaidó’s tragedy. As he seeks international support, he weakens his domestic recognition. He may have to distance himself from the US to regain popular approval, but this instead will weaken his support from Washington. His powerful allies are being arrested, and his power is fading. Recent protests he has organized have brought in people, but nowhere to the degree of last year. Guaidó may regain his lost status, but it’ll take an unforeseeable thunderbolt for that to happen.
Simply because Guaidó has lost power and his protest sizes are declining doesn’t mean that Maduro has been let off the hook. It was the policies of him and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez that have caused one of the greatest humanitarian calamities of the 21st century. Millions of Venezuelans have fled a country mired in economic and political instability. The one-two punch of C.O.V.I.D.-19 and a Russia-Saudi Arabia oil spat will lower oil prices and slash global trade, badly damaging a horrific economy infested with oil overreliance, mismanagement, and corruption. Furthermore, Maduro will have to manage upcoming legislative elections, and their political outcry, in December. Nicolás Maduro is a deeply unpopular figure (in the same Meganálisis poll 87 percent of respondents wanted him out power) in a precarious situation. However, Guaidó’s tragedy prevents him from being the man to oust or replace Maduro.
David Leshchiner is a first-year International Relations major in the School of International Affairs. He is an Editor-at-Large for the Agora.
Image courtesy Alex Jesús Cabello Leiva, Creative Commons