CARACAS, Venezuela — At the start of 2019, as President Nicolás Maduro was claiming reelection in a vote widely condemned as fraudulent, the head of the country’s legislature stood before an electric crowd of thousands in John Paul II Plaza here in the Venezuelan capital and presented himself as the country’s rightful leader.
“We will stay on the street,” Juan Guaidó vowed, “until Venezuela is liberated!”
The then-35-year-old head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly was swiftly backed by the Trump administration and governments around the world on the reasoning that he was now the highest-ranking democratically elected official in the country.
A rare unifying figure among the historically fractious opposition, Guaidó said he would serve as the country’s “interim president” until Maduro stepped down — or, at least, agreed to hold free and fair elections.
But nearly four years later and with little to show for the effort, the experiment has come to an end. On Friday, the opposition lawmakers who once rallied behind Guaidó voted 72-29 to dissolve their so-called interim government, effectively ending his mandate.
“After four years, we should not continue to maintain a system that has not given results and is a bureaucratic burden,” Nora Bracho, a member of one of the three main opposition parties voting to end the interim government, told The Washington Post before the vote. “We have to reinvent ourselves and advance in our fight.”
At stake is not only the prospect of competitive elections under Maduro’s authoritarian socialist state and U.S. engagement with the country but also the control of key government assets abroad. Under U.S. and other sanctions, the interim government has administered Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp. and gold stored at the Bank of England.
Lawmakers established a committee to protect those assets and manage expenses. The National Assembly, elected in 2015, will continue through 2023, but only to legislate on issues related to the assets.
In a video tweet posted to Twitter on Thursday, Guaidó said he was willing to allow the assembly to choose another leader in his place.
“Insisting on continuing with the interim presidency doesn’t have to do with Juan Guaidó,” he said. “It’s a constitutional duty.”
Guaidó, now 39, told The Post last year he would remain interim president “until there is a free and fair presidential election. … That is my constitutional mandate.”
Sergio Vergara, an opposition congressman for Popular Will, the only major party that still supported Guaidó, warned before the vote that removing him would amount to recognizing Maduro.
“My question to all those promoting this is if the international community would agree with a violation of the constitution,” he told The Post. He said some assembly members might still be persuadable.
The Biden administration said it planned to recognize whatever body the opposition comes up with, according to a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal policy discussions.
“If they change their name or whatever, we’ll still call them the interim government, for the purpose of promoting talks” with Maduro’s government, and keeping sanctions in place as a means of leveraging negotiations over new elections, the official said before the vote.
“Our point is that we kind of hold all the cards here at this point in terms of sanctions policy,” the official said. “If [Maduro] wants us to change that approach and lift sanctions, what we need to see are democratic outcomes.”
As Maduro’s grip on power has proved durable, the Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal with him. U.S. officials made a rare trip to the presidential palace in March to discuss energy sanctions and secure the release of two detained Americans.
After an initial round of negotiations between the opposition and Maduro’s government last month, the administration allowed Chevron to reopen its oil production facilities in Venezuela, on the conditions that all oil produced is sold to the United States and all royalties and taxes due to Venezuela are used to pay down its U.S. debt.
Officials have said they would ease sanctions further if the talks moderated by Norway in Mexico City continue and bear results, but they have little confidence that Maduro is serious about the possibility of relinquishing power through free and fair elections.
But diplomatic engagement could accelerate, analysts say, after decisive Republican wins in Florida in the midterm elections have diminished the state’s value as a battleground. Biden administration officials, less concerned about trying to win the support of Maduro’s opponents in the Sunshine State, might see less cost to dealing with him, Tulane University sociologist David Smilde said.
The European Union has stopped recognizing Guaidó as interim president, as have many countries in Latin America. Many have declined to recognize anyone as president of Venezuela.
The United States, with the help of conservative allies in Latin America, has managed to bar Maduro’s representatives from Venezuela’s seats in international and regional organizations, including the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank, and fill them instead with Guaidó’s officials. But a wave of elections in some of the region’s most powerful countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Chile, has brought leftists to power with different priorities.
“What we want them to do is to not normalize or basically ignore what’s going on inside Venezuela,” where human rights abuses and corruption still abound, the senior administration official said. “These are questions that are going to be fought” in regional organizations. “Do we have the votes to convince other governments not to seat anybody?”
The official said the Trump policy of recognizing Guaidó was centered on ousting Maduro, who is under indictment in the United States for alleged narcoterrorism. The Biden administration is focused on negotiations toward elections.
“It’s an approach that keeps us focusing on supporting the democratic process, and makes it less about Guaidó,” the official said.
It’s not clear just how much money the opposition manages — or how it is using it. In a September news conference, Guaidó said that between 2020 and 2021, it spent $130 million from funds “protected by the United States.” In 2021, he said, his government used the money on humanitarian aid, “defense of democracy,” the National Assembly and the management of foreign assets.
Over the past four years, the interim government has faced accusations of corruption and improper use of funds — including from some of its own members.
Guaidó, a relatively unknown opposition lawmaker before he was named interim president, at one point claimed support from nearly 60 percent of Venezuelans in polls. But a recent poll from Andrés Bello Catholic University and pollster Delphos indicated that more respondents would vote for Maduro than Guaidó now. More than 56 percent said the interim government should disappear completely.
“The majority of the population wants change, not only from Guaidó,” said Luis Vicente León, director of the Caracas-based Datanalisis polling agency. “They also feel disconnected from the opposition in general, and the government in general. They feel disconnected from politics.”
Schmidt reported from Bogotá, Colombia. DeYoung reported from Washington.