The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Juan Guaidó promised to save Venezuela. Now the flame he lit is petering out, and his U.S. backers are weighing their options.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó speaks to a crowd of some 250 supporters in eastern Caracas this month. Earlier this year, Guaidó commanded masses to the streets to demonstrate against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. He’s now struggling to hold the movement together. (Andrea Hernández Briceño/For The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — It was sunset in the Venezuelan capital, and Juan Guaidó, the 36-year-old industrial engineer anointed earlier this year as the would-be savior of a troubled nation, leaped out of his unmarked Ford Explorer and into a middle-class neighborhood of mid-rise apartments.

“Viva Guaidó!” exclaimed one of the most fervent among the 250 or so neighbors who had ventured out to hear him speak. It was a far cry from the mass marches he commanded earlier in the year. Vegetable vendors at a nearby market, unmoved, continued to hawk their wilted remainders. Some in the crowd tried to stir a chorus of Guaidó’s trademark (if borrowed) slogan: “¡Sí, se puede!” “Yes, we can!”

But the chant quickly fizzled out — just as the historic movement Guaidó launched at the beginning of the year is in danger of doing.

On an electric afternoon in January, Guaidó lit a flame of hope. Standing before the masses on a broad avenue in eastern Caracas, the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly declared President Nicolás Maduro a “usurper” and invoked articles of the constitution that he said made him the nation’s rightful leader. He vowed to free the people from police state repression and reverse a disastrous economic collapse — and quickly won recognition from the United States and dozens of other countries.

Venezuela's opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, is trying to keep momentum as President Nicolás Maduro closes in and maintains control over the country. (Video: The Washington Post)

Yet nearly a year later, Maduro — far wilier and more resilient than his opponents calculated — is still comfortably ensconced in the presidential palace. And the Venezuelans Guaidó once inspired are losing faith — in the opposition he leads, in its backers in the Trump administration and, for some, in Guaidó himself.

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Their crisis of conviction comes at the most dangerous moment of Guaidó’s nearly miraculous political arc.

Sensing his weakness, the socialist government’s shadowy security apparatus has begun to close in — deploying bribes, intimidation and repression to snuff his movement out. Security forces raided the home of a lawmaker from Guaidó’s party on Friday, and then accused her and three others of plotting a coup. Maduro announced arrest warrants against the four lawmakers on Sunday.

Guaidó dismissed the allegations as more of Maduro’s intimidation, and said his presence during the raid saved lawmaker Yanet Fermín from being detained.

Perhaps more ominously, Guaidó is suddenly confronting revelations of corruption and plots against him from within his own ranks, tarnishing his movement and threatening to unravel the opposition’s hard-won unity.

The once-steady threats of American force to oust Maduro — rhetoric that divided Guaidó’s teetering coalition — have all but evaporated. But the Trump administration is weighing new steps — short of boots on the ground — that could further strain harmony. The options, according to two people familiar with U.S. deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter, include a possible naval blockade of Venezuelan oil destined for Cuba. The oil represents a key source of revenue for Maduro’s government, which is under heavy sanctions.

Maduro, the hand-chosen successor of the late Hugo Chávez, the founder of Venezuela’s socialist state, maintains the support of Russia and China, which covet the country’s natural resources and strategic position on the Caribbean coast of South America.

Yet Guaidó’s biggest challenge lies in the exhausted eyes of everyday Venezuelans — such as the smattering of supporters who gathered to hear him speak on this unseasonably warm Caracas night.

He spoke tenderly to the group.

“I know,” he said. “I know that you feel mentally tired.”

“We’re losing hope,” cried out one woman behind him.

‘They have launched a psychological war’

Earlier that day, Guaidó’s bulletproof gray Explorer edged forward through the traffic of eastern Caracas. Since rising at daybreak in the borrowed apartment he shares with his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, he had chugged three mugs of coffee. The flat, in a nondescript apartment block in the capital, is stocked with half-filled suitcases and 14 statues of the Virgin Mary.

He was en route to his makeshift “presidential palace” — a floor of offices in a high-rise business district pocked with burned-out lightbulbs. A plastic lectern bearing the official seal of Venezuela lies tucked away in one corner.

The government knows where Guaidó lives and works but has thus far not risked the international backlash that could come from detaining him. Yet as his popularity slips — some polls now show him below 40 percent, down from 65 percent in the spring — his adversaries are growing bolder.

Through the summer, Guaidó traveled the country relatively freely. But during a campaign stop at Venezuela’s Margarita Island two months ago, the government shut down the hotel and seized the cars he used. He has limited his travels ever since.

More and harsher stories against him and his family are appearing on social media and pro-government websites. One talks of his brother’s alleged Swiss bank accounts.

“Fake news,” Guaidó said. “They have launched a psychological war to create negative public opinion.”

Other messages from Maduro are less subtle. Last month, ahead of a national protest — the largest Guaidó had managed to call since spring — government forces raided the offices of his political party, Voluntad Popular. A week ago, motorcycle-riding pro-government “colectivos” followed his wife’s car as she dropped their daughter off at day care.

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Guaidó said his movement is funded by Venezuelans both inside and outside the country. He said gathering contributions remained “a constant struggle” that had become “harder with time.”

For Venezuelans, the cost of supporting Guaidó has continued to rise. At one recent protest in the coastal city of Cumaná, he said, a demonstrator was detained and tortured.

“They put him in a box,” Guaidó said. “Then they threw a gas bomb inside the box. He thought he would die from asphyxiation.”

Venezuelan government officials did not respond to requests for comment.

As his driver takes a sharp left turn, Guaidó is on the phone with a supporter.

“Pa’lante!” he encourages the caller — Venezuelan slang for “Let’s keep going!” But it’s getting harder to continue, and he knows it.

In Caracas, the government’s recent easing of import, price and currency controls has created the impression of economic improvement. There are more items on store shelves, more Christmas decorations in the streets. That’s led some caraqueños to feel less anxious.

But the capital is a bubble in a nation falling apart. By the end of 2019, at least 4.5 million Venezuelans — 15 percent of the population — will have fled the country in just three years. This year, the outflow has included many who once took to the streets. In an oil-rich economy that was once South America’s richest per capita, the water system and power grid are failing. Crumbling hospitals and shortages of basic medicines have left millions without treatment. Nationwide, untold numbers of Venezuelans are going hungry every night.

“The people are tired of protesting and not obtaining what they ask for,” Guaidó concedes. “But the country wants a transition.”

A tumultuous year gives way to an uncertain future

A year ago, the vast majority of Venezuelans had never heard of Guaidó, the sinewy engineer-turned-politician from the coastal city of La Guaira. In December 2018, he rose to the top of the National Assembly — widely viewed as the last democratic institution left in Venezuela — largely by default. It was his party’s turn to lead, but its head, Leopoldo López, was under detention. Its No. 2 had sought sanctuary inside the Chilean Embassy. Its No. 3 was in exile in the United States.

It was precisely Guaidó’s outsider status that allowed him to sidestep the personal rivalries between party leaders, uniting a long-divided opposition to oppose Maduro.

For a time, Guaidó seemed poised to join a shortlist of global figures who have almost single-handedly changed their nation’s history. In January, after Maduro claimed victory in tainted elections, Guaidó dared to do what previous opposition leaders in his position had feared: He publicly claimed the presidency himself.

The following month, he spirited over the Colombian border to join a deadly showdown to push humanitarian aid into Venezuela against Maduro’s military blockade. He expected soldiers to defect and join the cause, but few did. The effort ended with at least seven dead and 300 injured, much of the aid burned, and the opposition struggling to recapture momentum.

The accidental leader: How Juan Guaidó became the face of Venezuela’s uprising

Then, in the predawn hours of April 30, Guaidó appeared at La Carlota air base in eastern Caracas with a handful of soldiers and called for the military to rise up against Maduro. Venezuelans poured into the streets for what appeared to be a turning point in the opposition struggle. But images of a triumphant Guaidó, cheered on by his backers in Washington, soon gave way to word that the co-conspirators close to Maduro and within the military whom Guaidó had counted on had declined to follow through with a carefully laid but prematurely sprung plot.

Security forces moved against the uprising, killing at least four people, wounding scores and sending opposition leaders into hiding. The movement has flailed ever since, moving into fruitless and now-frozen negotiations with the government, and losing steam.

“I think Guaidó has made mistakes, and I’m not sure if it is because of lack of information or bad advice,” said María Corina Machado, an opposition hard-liner. “The opposition keeps making the same mistakes again and again. And that has brought distrust.”

On the morning of Dec. 1, the problem would become dire as rot within the opposition came to light.

The local investigative outlet published an exposé based on letters that incriminated nine opposition lawmakers in a scheme linked to a Venezuelan executive under U.S. sanctions who does big business with Maduro’s government.

The lawmakers allegedly signed letters in support of executive Alex Saab and a Colombian associate that were sent to the Colombian government, European nations and international banks, according to Edgar Zambrano, appointed by Guaidó to probe the case. Presumably, the letters were aimed at unfreezing overseas funds belonging to Saab and his associate.

Some of the accused lawmakers have denied the authenticity of those letters. But senior opposition officials say most of them are also involved in an effort by the Maduro government to buy off or coerce their peers into abandoning Guaidó.

The plan: to prevent Guaidó from winning reelection next month as head of the National Assembly. A loss would rob him of the legal basis for his claim to the presidency, now recognized by the United States and 58 other nations.

Luis Stefanelli, an opposition lawmaker from Guaidó’s party, says a fellow legislator approached him last month with an offer: $50,000 up front and $950,000 next month to betray Guaidó.

The alleged corruption has sparked outrage among opposition supporters.

“People will have to understand that out of a group of 110 lawmakers, 10 bad apples are not the end of the opposition,” Stefanelli said. “I’m not justifying it, but it’s not surprising in a country where morality has been destroyed.”

In Venezuela’s oil capital, life is a struggle. So is death.

The alleged sedition within Guaidó’s ranks runs deeper than bribes. In recent months, his ambassador to Colombia, Humberto Calderón, held unofficial meetings with emissaries of Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, and the head of Venezuela’s supreme court, Maikel Moreno, according to three people familiar with the talks.

Padrino and Moreno, U.S. and opposition officials have said, conspired against Maduro in the failed April 30 plot before dropping out (the two men have denied it). In Calderón’s deal, both Maduro and Guaidó would have been forced out, according to these people.

Guaidó fired Calderón last month. Members of the Venezuelan opposition in Colombia say the rift dates at least as far back as April, when Colombian and U.S. intelligence told Calderón that opposition officials close to Guaidó in Colombia were allegedly misusing donations. Calderón informed Guaidó of the claims, and two months later, in June, the intelligence documents, including evidence of dining at expensive restaurants and the hiring of prostitutes, were made public by the outlet PanAm Post.

Opposition officials close to Guaidó have suggested Calderón was the one who leaked the documents. Calderón denies the allegation and denies holding secret talks with emissaries of Maduro’s inner circle. But he suggested Guaidó needed to rethink his strategy and team.

“Guaidó needs to renovate his inner circle, because the people he has around him are not the best,” Calderón told The Washington Post. “He needs competence and transparency. If you do not set a good example, people won’t believe in you.”

‘I think we underestimated the dictatorship’

Before Guaidó arrived at the evening rally — the kind of small neighborhood gathering that has largely supplanted the massive marches he once convened — currents of anger and frustration ran through the crowd. As the year closes out, it has become clear Guaidó did not so much promise as over-promise.

Guaidó and his American allies have underestimated Maduro. The armed forces, whose leaders enjoy lucrative business deals under the current arrangements, still back the 57-year-old socialist.

Channels remain open with senior government and military officials, according to people familiar with those dealings. But a tipping point, they say, does not feel imminent. Some of them are already calling the April 30 plot Venezuela’s Bay of Pigs — an opportunity, now lost, that might never come around again.

How Nicolás Maduro has been able to cling to power

Guaidó’s decision to enter into negotiations with the government brokered by Norway — he offered to resign if Maduro also stepped down — succeeded mostly in buying the government time to consolidate its position. Since the talks broke down in September, Maduro has divided and conquered, launching new negotiations — boycotted by Guaidó — with smaller opposition parties more amenable to Maduro’s lead.

“I think we underestimated the dictatorship and the harm it is willing to do,” Guaidó told The Post. “We have to improve our relationship with the armed forces.”

Maduro has managed to withstand tough U.S. sanctions — including an embargo on Venezuelan oil, the lifeblood of its economy — by running gold and gems from the mineral-rich south to Turkey and Russia in exchange for cash. Russia and, to a lesser extent, China remain solid benefactors.

U.S. officials held high-level meetings last week to reassess their approach on Venezuela and consider more provocative steps. U.S. officials this month identified six state-owned vessels they said were shipping oil to Cuba — and are weighing a blockade to prevent them from reaching the island.

“Tougher options are being weighed, and some of them will be put into effect,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “There are no debates about the policy — backing Guaidó and pressing for a transition to democracy — but there are discussions about how to make the policy more effective. So steps will be taken, probably after Christmas.”

Yet some Guiadó supporters blame him for a U.S. policy they believe has failed. U.S. economic sanctions, some argue, are hurting an economy already on life support. Others complain that President Trump raised their hopes by threatening U.S. military action that now appears to have always been a bluff.

Guaidó says opposition overestimated military support for uprising

“I’m mad,” said Emperatriz Machado, a 41-year-old veterinarian who came to hear Guaidó. “A U.S. intervention was a dream, and nothing more.”

Polls show Guaidó is still the nation’s most popular leader — far more popular than Maduro. But analyst say he is in danger of losing that lead, particularly as Venezuelans smart over allegations of opposition corruption.

“I used to march in the street loyally,” said Guillermo Sosa, a 20-year-old industrial engineering student who came to hear Guaidó speak.

“I’m here to get an explanation of why the government is still in power, about why there are corrupt lawmakers in the opposition,” he said. “I don’t know who or what to believe in anymore.”

Rachelle Krygier contributed to this article.

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