Despite international sanctions and widespread discontent at home, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro appears to have consolidated his grip on power, outmaneuvering the opposition and leaving it fractured, weakened, even disgraced.
Maduro, the anointed successor of the late left-wing firebrand Hugo Chávez, has emerged as one of the highest-profile foreign adversaries of President Trump, who has repeatedly called Venezuela a dictatorship. The bus-driver-turned-president still faces serious challenges in the coming months, as his oil-producing country seeks to avert further international sanctions and a debt default that could deepen an already-withering economic crisis.
Yet analysts increasingly see Maduro as having neutralized one of his biggest threats: his domestic political opposition.
Formed in 2008 to present a united front against Chávez, the Democratic Unity Roundtable, known as the MUD in Spanish, amounted to a confederation of anti-government parties. This year, the MUD helped fuel months of anti-government protests. Some of its major figures, including leading dissident Leopoldo López, have been in detention on what critics call spurious charges. But those who could speak out — including his wife — were embraced in Washington and European capitals as the voices of democracy in Venezuela.
To a significant extent, they still are. Yet this past week, the MUD’s behind-the-scenes infighting spilled into the open, apparently playing right into Maduro’s hands.
“The alliance of the opposition is now crumbling,” said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst based in Caracas.
Since Chávez rose to power in 1999 and launched what he called a socialist revolution, the Venezuelan opposition, saddled with a legacy of corruption and elitism, has struggled to reinvent itself. A 2002 coup against Chávez lasted 47 hours. Yet earlier this year, as Venezuelans turned out in force in anti-government protests backed by the MUD, observers sensed a possible tipping point.
Leaders in the MUD always had differences. Those rifts, however, have turned into gulfs in the aftermath of state elections Oct. 15, sapping the opposition’s momentum. The new divisions come as some factions appear willing to play by Maduro’s rules.
The opposition ran candidates for governor in all 23 states, despite many calls to boycott the vote. It had refused to participate in an election in July that created an all-powerful congress stocked with Maduro loyalists. Opposition leaders sensed an opportunity for gains in this month’s race — arguing that Maduro would be compelled by international pressure to allow their winners to take office.
What followed was an effective — if apparently dirty — government campaign that blindsided the opposition, which ended up winning only five of 23 states. The government, meanwhile, laid down an important stipulation for winners: They had to agree to be sworn in by the new Constituent Assembly, effectively recognizing a body the opposition had decried as illegitimate.
The opposition had assured its supporters that it would forfeit its posts on principle rather than take such a step. And yet on Monday, four out of the five winning opposition governors caved in.
In a jarring moment, Delcy Rodríguez, the assembly’s chief and one of Maduro’s top lieutenants, appeared to stifle a laugh as the opposition governors swore their oaths before her.
“It’s time to respect the authorities and the people,” said Alfredo Díaz, one of the newly elected opposition governors.
Later, the four governors argued that refusing would have allowed the government’s candidates to take their jobs. In the days since, however, their action has sparked an escalating war of words in the opposition.
The response by Henry Ramos Allup, head of the Democratic Action party, to which four of the governors belonged, was seemingly contradictory — to defend their decision while also vowing unspecified sanctions against them. He and his party have suffered withering attacks. Henrique Capriles, a two-time opposition presidential candidate, insisted that the group should be ousted from the MUD.
“If you have a tumor and have been taking medicines that don’t work, you go to surgery,” Capriles said.
Lilian Tintori, an opposition activist and Lopez’s wife, also blasted the new governors, saying: “Swearing in in front of the Constituent Assembly only serves to validate the fraud of the dictatorship.”
Juan Pablo Guanipa, the only winning opposition governor to decline the swearing-in, said, “To go and submit ourselves to the Constituent Assembly permits the dictatorship to show people and the world that they’re recognized.”
Many stunned Venezuelans expressed a sense of betrayal.
“So much disillusionment,” tweeted one Venezuelan, identified as Maria Luz. “Now these governors are officially pro-government!”
All this has complicated the question of how and whether change will come to long-suffering Venezuela, which has been hit hard by falling oil prices and economic mismanagement. Maduro’s popularity ratings are hovering in the low 20s as the country suffers one of the world’s highest inflation rates as well as shortages of food and medicine. Critics say the government has managed to hold on to power in part by manipulating elections and ruling by fear — particularly through armed pro-government gangs known as colectivos.
Yet after this week, hopes are dwindling that the traditional opposition will be able to effect significant change or again rally Venezuelans to the streets. Some analysts say the most radical anti-government militants could completely break from the political opposition and organize urban guerrilla units.
Perhaps sensing the growing disenchantment in the opposition, the government this week said it would hold key mayoral elections in December. Should the government manage to secure the mayors’ jobs in more cities, it could potentially dole out more municipal jobs to loyalists and find new ways to consolidate its support.
The growing schism could leave opposition activists in two camps — those who are willing to play by Maduro’s rules to enjoy a measure of power and those who aren’t.
In all fairness, some say, the opposition is fighting an authoritarian machine that has given it little legal space in which to maneuver. And yet these days the opposition appears to be fighting a two-front battle — against the government and itself.
“The impression now is clearly of an opposition that is prostrate before the government,” said Eric Farnsworth, who worked on Latin America issues in the Clinton administration and is now Washington director of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, a regional trade and dialogue promotion group. “The swearing-in was a highly symbolic moment, a rock on which the opposition has been broken.”