The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Has the Venezuelan opposition lost its momentum?

An opposition supporter walks on the road leading to the Colombian border outside of Capacho, Venezuela, on Feb. 23. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — For more than a month, opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s audacious campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro captivated the world while bringing hope to millions of desperate Venezuelans. But his U.S.-backed movement to unseat the socialists is at a crossroads, in danger of losing its greatest asset: momentum.

Guaidó, a 35-year-old civil engineer turned national hero, staked everything on a weekend operation to break the government’s blockade of U.S. humanitarian aid and turn Maduro’s armed forces against him. That bid largely failed, producing a trickle, but not a flood, of military defections. The opposition’s next play — a call for intervention by foreign forces — did not win immediate support in Washington.

The succession of setbacks left the opposition here scrambling Tuesday to sustain what has become the single biggest challenge to 20 years of socialist rule and manage inflated expectations of a rapid ouster of Maduro.

“Some sectors of the opposition are frustrated because there was no sophisticated or alternative plan if military forces did not break over the weekend,” said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanalisis, a Caracas-based polling agency. “In short, their plan was naive.”

For years, the opposition to Maduro was weak and fractured. That changed when Guaidó emerged as a unifying symbol. Citing the constitution, he called Maduro a usurper for claiming to win an election that many observers had deemed fraudulent, and Guaidó, as the head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, proclaimed himself the nation’s rightful leader.

As opposition leaders held a flurry of phone calls and meetings Tuesday to assess their options, the most pressing question was whether Guaidó would be able to reenter Venezuela after leaving it over the weekend for Colombia to lead the aid effort and meet with regional leaders. Guaidó will seek to reenter Venezuela within 72 hours, opposition officials said.

Guaidó left the country in violation of a government travel ban, and his suggestion of foreign intervention could open the door to charges of treason.

He is now gambling that Maduro won’t risk an international backlash by taking action against him. But analysts say there is still a high chance that Guaidó will be arrested or barred from returning, which could leave him running a dampened movement from exile.

Guaidó himself has said it is vital for him to be able to lead massive rallies and challenge Maduro from stages nationwide. Guaidó still commands vast support in a country suffering from a profound economic collapse linked to failed socialist policies and government corruption and mismanagement.

“An imprisoned leader doesn’t serve anyone, and an exiled president doesn’t either,” Guaidó said in a televised interview from Colombia on Tuesday. “My function and responsibility is to be in Caracas, no matter the risks.”

At the same time, the movement he almost single-handedly energized is confronting disappointment and deflated expectations — and is divided over whether to stay the course of peaceful disobedience or take the fight to Maduro through armed resistance.

“War is the only way to take out this government,” said Humberto Arau, 28, a student activist from the Venezuelan city of Merida who engaged in running battles with Maduro’s forces Saturday on the Colombian border. He and other radical opposition youths were calling Tuesday for weapons to help them raise an armed insurgency.

Guaidó went into a meeting Monday with regional leaders, including Vice President Pence, with some in the opposition hoping for a quick pledge of U.S.-led military intervention. When such a pledge did not come and anti-government youths heard the news, some of them cried in their makeshift camps in Colombia.

“The opposition officials said we had to fight, but where are they now?” Javier Cacho, 24, said Tuesday as young men with covered faces stirred around him ahead of a rock-throwing assault on Venezuelan guardsmen. “What happened to the humanitarian aid? Where is it? Who has it? I thought the idea was to get the food through to our families.”

Some militants were already assembling piles of molotov cocktails and vowing to procure weapons. The most radical protesters complained that opposition leaders had not fought hard enough Saturday, insisting that they fled to the rear when the tear gas and rubber bullets began to fly.

“We’ve got to help our people,” said 18-year-old Yoiner Jalez, an anti-government militant living in a camp in the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. Even as opposition leaders called for at least a temporary halt in the effort at breaking Maduro’s blockade, Jalez said that he and other militant youths were planning an attempt to take a border bridge and clear a corridor for humanitarian aid. “All we have now are rocks, molotovs, slingshots and shields,” he said. “We need arms to continue this.”

Yet without large-scale support from the United States and other anti-Maduro governments, the chances of an armed insurgency remained slight at best. That is particularly true in the border region, which is a hotbed for narco-traffickers and Colombian leftist guerrillas who operate in loose alliance with Maduro’s government. Experts said it was unlikely they would allow new actors on their turf.

“I think that this armed violent group that calls itself ‘the resistance’ — a group of Venezuelans and Colombians — won’t really be able to establish themselves there,” said Wilfredo Cañizares, the director of Fundación Progresar, a Colombian-based human rights group that monitors violence in the border zone.

The opposition is now left to play a long game as sanctions continue to squeeze Venezuela.

Last month, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Maduro’s government that cut off his single largest source of hard currency: oil sales to the United States. Those measures are set to slam an already devastated economy, deepening food and medical shortages. Experts also predict severe gas shortages in the weeks ahead, because Venezuela, despite resting atop the world’s largest known oil reserves, relies on U.S. refineries for processed gasoline supplies, which are now cut off.

The opposition is calculating that worsening conditions and increasing international isolation will make Maduro’s rule untenable, opening new cracks in the military and his inner circle. But it could also backfire if Venezuelans blame the United States and the opposition for the nation’s misery.

That means time is of the essence for the opposition. To increase the pressure on Maduro, the opposition has been weighing whether to call national strikes.

“We will seek for an escalation of street pressure. Some leaders want to call for general strikes with all sectors, but others think it’s not a good idea,” said opposition politician Juan Pablo Guanipa. “The most important thing, and we all know it, is to keep the momentum. To do that, Guaidó needs to come back to Caracas urgently.”

A likely move by the opposition is to guarantee amnesty to members of the military, intelligence and security services if they turn against Maduro. The United States may be asked to make a similar gesture, issuing statements or dropping U.S.-based charges against senior officials who switch sides.

“It would require a real amnesty, not a generic one but a negotiated one with international guarantees, to really create incentives for high-ranking officials to desert,” León said.

Baddour reported from Cúcuta. Rachelle Krygier, Andreina Aponte and Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas contributed to this report.

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