The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Venezuela’s opposition mounts another day of protest, Maduro’s inner circle remains intact 

Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the streets of Caracas, Venezuela, to demand a change in government Feb. 12, 2019. President Nicolás Maduro is locked in a power struggle with self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó as the country is wracked by chronic food and gas shortages and a collapsing economy. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)
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CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans on Tuesday fed a wave of discontent seeking to drive President Nicolás Maduro from office, turning out into the streets in massive protests. But even as the opposition hailed new momentum, its leaders conceded that their bid to bring down the socialist government appeared to be morphing into a longer-term struggle.

Through strong U.S. sanctions, international isolation and street protests, the opposition and its foreign allies led by the Trump administration had hoped to rapidly achieve Maduro’s ouster. But nearly three weeks after Juan Guaidó, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself the rightful president and became recognized by dozens of nations including the United States, Maduro’s inner circle has shown few outward signs of cracking. 

“No one can predict exactly how long this is going to last,” said Juan Andrés Mejía, a Venezuelan opposition leader and close ally of Guaidó. “I would like it to be days, but it could be weeks or even months.”

Protests in support of opposition leader Juan Guaidó swelled in Caracas Feb. 12, where The Washington Post's Jon Gerberg is covering the unrest. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

For the opposition, the protests are key to maintaining domestic pressure on an autocratic government that has led the nation into a humanitarian crisis, characterized by severe food and medical shortages. Yet taken alone, they appear unlikely to force Maduro out. Instead, the protests are one part of a strategy that is also centered on a U.S.-backed effort to cut off Maduro’s international revenue streams and turn the military against him. 

In recent weeks, Maduro has suffered a handful of defections — and the opposition is aggressively courting both the military and government civil servants to undermine his support. But the president also has proved more durable than at least some of his enemies had anticipated last month at the start of the current crisis. 

Analysts call the U.S. sanctions that target Venezuela’s key oil sector some of the strongest ever imposed by Washington. But as they rob the government of its single largest source of hard currency — U.S. oil sales — they are also likely to deepen the suffering of the Venezuelan people. 

They do not, for instance, enable the kind of oil-for-food trades made by the government of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein before he was toppled in 2003. 

“Sanctions could have an enormous impact on an already dire humanitarian crisis if the situation drags on,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “Obviously, the U.S. was utterly convinced that sanctions would be the final blow and the collapse would happen in a matter of days. It underestimated the regime’s resilience.”

The opposition Tuesday maintained the drumbeat of protests in the streets, drawing what it claimed were hundreds of thousands nationwide for the third time in as many weeks. 

In Caracas, crowds filled multiple city blocks as student groups planned an overnight vigil for Tuesday’s Youth Day. 

“For those who made the bet that we were going to get tired, I think today is evidence that we won’t,” Guaidó said as he addressed the crowd.

State television also showed a crowd of government supporters in central Caracas rallying by a stage where Maduro was set to speak Tuesday. Wearing red shirts, they held Venezuelan flags. Some donned fake mustaches in honor of the president.

Speaking to supporters, Maduro raised the specter of U.S. intervention in Venezuela — an option the Trump administration has said remains on the table. 

“We want the threats of military intervention to end and for Venezuela to say in unison, ‘We want peace,’ ” he said.

At a plaza in the east of the capital, a far larger number of demonstrators held anti-Maduro signs, including one with the message: “I refuse to live with hunger and be surrounded by misery.”

“We need to end this,” said Sol Morales, a 58-year-old teacher. “Most of my nephews have left the country already. We, the old ones, are the ones left, and today I march for the youth.”

Doris Armas, 47, also a teacher, took a bus from her hometown 45 minutes from Caracas to join the protests. “We have no basic services. We have power outages all the time and haven’t had running water for months,” she said. “We are protesting. It is our right. Most Venezuelans want change.” 

Experts note, however, that authoritarian regimes have frequently managed to survive — some for months, others indefinitely — despite intense domestic and international pressure. Analysts fear that if Maduro stays, the Venezuelan people could face a dramatic escalation of food and medical shortages already crippling the nation.

The opposition and the Trump administration are calculating that a deepening of the crisis will ultimately turn Maduro’s senior brass and civilian allies against him. But his government still controls food imports and distribution.

“When a country becomes even poorer, sometimes the government becomes more powerful because it is the only one able to provide the means for survival,” said Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist at the New York-based Torino Capital investment firm.  

Yet the opposition is also seeking to challenge Maduro through large-scale humanitarian aid from  Western nations, including $20 million worth of supplies from the United States. Maduro has vowed to block shipments, but Guaidó on Tuesday called for the military to disobey his orders and allow caravans in Feb. 23. 

“The armed forces will have these days to put themselves on the side of the constitution and find their humanity,” Guaidó said.

Across Caracas Venezuelans grapple with an uncertain future. Some long for the days of Hugo Chávez, while others call for definitive change. (Video: Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The U.S. sanctions already are complicating Venezuela’s energy-based economy in other ways. 

Although this South American nation harbors the world’s largest oil reserves, experts say it has only five to 10 days’ worth of gasoline left. That’s because Venezuela mostly imported gasoline from the refineries that processed its sludgy crude in the United States.

Maduro also depended on the United States for the diluents that the oil sector here needs to thin out its crude for export. 

U.S. sanctions have effectively blocked both.

That has left Maduro to appeal to his allies — principally Russia but also Turkey and Arab nations — to help Venezuela solve both problems.

“Production will inevitably fall in the very short term,” said Guillermo Morillo, a former manager at the state-owned oil giant, PDVSA.

The government has unleashed an intense wave of repression to quiet smaller demonstrations in formerly loyal slums. But thus far, it has shown relative restraint in confronting Guaidó’s large-scale rallies. That stands in sharp contrast to Maduro’s response to demonstrations in 2017, when more than 100 people were killed, and reflects fears of an even harsher international reaction if the government puts down the protests with force.

In recent days, Maduro has alternately fired back at Guaidó and his supporters and sought to show that he is in good spirits. On the eve of Tuesday’s protests, he did not mention them in nationally televised comments, instead focusing on the need to boost tourism.

“The media war has an objective — that nobody comes to Venezuela, that nobody comes to invest here,” Maduro said. “There is no other country in the world with greater opportunities for investment than our beloved Venezuela.”

The scene during protests in Venezuela

Feb. 12, 2019 | Protesters gather to demand a change in government in Caracas. The current president, Nicolás Maduro, is locked in a power struggle with Juan Guaidó, who has proclaimed himself the country’s rightful leader. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Rachelle Krygier and Andreina Aponte contributed to this report. 

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