The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Juan Guaidó may have united Congress briefly, but he is faltering in Venezuela

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó attended the State of the Union address on Tuesday. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

In a State of the Union address that will go down in history for having been literally ripped in half by the speaker of the House, moments of true bipartisanship were few and far between. Yet one line in President Trump’s speech made the speaker and the rest of Congress bolt upright to applaud: “Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó.”

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For Guaidó, basking in warm bipartisan applause punctuated by loud cheers, this was perhaps a very gratifying moment. He was also scheduled to meet with Trump at the Oval Office on Wednesday, an even more important marker of official U.S. backing. It’s easy to see that for Trump, the meeting will be as much about underlining the failure of Venezuelan socialism — with an eye toward wooing voters in Florida — than about Venezuela policy as such. But Guaidó is cast here in the role of beggar, not chooser.

His stop in Washington comes fresh off of a two-week tour that saw him meet in private with the heads of the governments of France, Britain, Germany, Canada and Colombia; he also gave a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos. The hope was to solidify Guaidó's image as the Venezuelan leader recognized by the international community.

In some ways, a full-house standing ovation in Congress is the more valuable propaganda tool, portraying his claim to lead Venezuelans as a rare oasis of bipartisan agreement in a catastrophically polarized Washington. But with Nicolás Maduro’s propaganda machine back home in Venezuela working overtime to portray him as a Trump puppet, the optics are a two-edged sword.

After a year, it’s clear to everyone now that Guaidó’s challenge to the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela is faltering. The original theory of the case was that Guaidó’s claim to the presidency would unleash a series of military defections around Maduro that would set the country on a path back to democracy.

Based on a reading of a provision of the Venezuelan constitution that makes the head of the National Assembly the interim president pending new elections when no duly elected president has been inaugurated, Guaidó’s claim to the presidency has always been contingent: aimed more at providing cover to Maduro’s backers to defect to the democratic camp than at any real sense that he could govern the country straightaway. Those defections have failed to materialize, and there are few in Venezuela who maintain any hope of that changing.

For all his international plaudits, Guaidó seems more likely to end up in a regime prison this year than in the presidential palace of Miraflores. Indeed, his international tour has been designed, in good part, to raise the cost to the regime of jailing him: He has been fêted all around Europe, applauded in Congress and received as a head of state in the White House, so Western powers would have little choice but to react strongly to any move to imprison him. As it stands, the regime probably no longer sees him as enough of a threat to stomach the blowback that would come from throwing him in jail.

In Venezuela, people appear increasingly resigned to their fate. The refugee exodus to neighboring countries has slowed down — though in no way stopped — and most of those left behind seem focused on surviving.

The regime, for its part, seems to have accepted that sanctions against Venezuelan oil exports are here to stay and is staking its future on the proceeds of sanctions-busting oil sales through Russian intermediaries, along with wildcat gold mining. Conditions at the mines that play a growing role in the regime’s survival strategy are stomach-wrenching. Just this week, Human Rights Watch published a harrowing report detailing the brutal tactics gangs use to keep control. One miner reported seeing gangs cut off a fellow miner’s fingers one at a time, then cut off his hand with a machete, after being accused of theft. Regime officials know that all manner of abuses take place at the mines, and do nothing to stop it. They need the money.

And so, while it’s certainly gratifying to see Democrats and Republicans alike stand up to applaud the personification of Venezuela’s rejection of barbarism, one can imagine how little this will mean to the mutilated miners brutalized to sustain the Maduro regime.

Guaidó remains a powerful symbol of hope for Venezuelans. But symbols alone are powerless against brutality on the scale that Venezuelans are suffering.

Read more:

Juan Guaidó: Maduro is a usurper. It’s time to restore democracy in Venezuela.

Jackson Diehl: Can Latin America handle Venezuela’s collapse without the U.S.?

Francisco Toro: The power struggle in Venezuela has created a dangerous governance vacuum

Anne Applebaum: Venezuela is how ‘illiberal democracy’ ends

Jackson Diehl: The Venezuela crisis is going to get much worse — and Trump will get the blame

The Post’s View: Trump’s Venezuela strategy has failed. Forcing talks could be the only option.