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The Trump-backed opposition leader in Venezuela is likely to lose his power

The dictator running the country is about to deal another blow to the country’s struggling democracy.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó addresses the press during an event for health professionals who have put their lives at stake fighting Covid-19, on September 10 in Caracas, Venezuela.
Carolina Cabral/Getty Images

The Venezuelan politician President Donald Trump backed to depose and replace that country’s dictator is poised to lose his position of power — making it harder for him to make his leadership claim and driving a stake into the heart of one of the Trump administration’s signature foreign policies.

In January 2019, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s rightful president. He argued that President Nicolás Maduro, who has been in power for seven years, rigged the 2018 presidential election that kept him in charge and that, as a result, Guaidó, as the head of the National Assembly, was the rightful interim president of the country according to the country’s constitution.

The United States and more than 50 other countries backed Guaidó’s claim and have been working ever since to help him push Maduro out once and for all. They’ve sanctioned politicians and businesses, sent much-needed food and medical aid, and helped sustain a global campaign to back Guaidó and boost his popularity.

But despite the two-year push, Guaidó has remained in the National Assembly and Maduro in the president’s mansion. Come Sunday, though, only Maduro likely will get to stay where he is.

Venezuelans will head to the polls Sunday to vote in the country’s National Assembly elections, where they’ll determine the 277 people to represent them starting on January 5.

But Guaidó and his opposition faction are boycotting the polls because they say the election is rigged.

They have a strong argument, especially since international observers from the European Union and the United Nations won’t be watching. Plus, government security forces have blocked the opposition from entering the Legislative Palace to participate in National Assembly sessions since January — right when the body was set to reelect Guaidó as its leader. Since then, Guaidó and his allies have held their own parallel sessions of parliament outside of the institution.

Even if they’re in the right — and polls indicate many Venezuelans agree with their claims — it still means Guaidó and his faction will likely lose their seats in the next National Assembly. That would deal the opposition a huge blow and deliver Maduro a significant victory.

“The future of Guaidó’s project looks grim,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America human rights group. “There is less international consensus on the status of Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency after January 5.”

“It is likely that he will retain support but it will be less robust, and the whole Venezuela issue will be put on the back burner in the US and the EU,” he continued. “The next two months will likely see a worsening of Guaidó’s position that will lead to a slow degradation of his power and a slow consolidation for Maduro during 2021.”

The National Assembly vote could solidify Maduro’s stranglehold on Venezuela

Sunday’s likely rigged election will represent an immense loss for what remains of Venezuela’s democracy and effectively complete Maduro’s authoritarian takeover of the economically devastated nation.

The National Assembly’s December 2015 vote was seen as the country’s last legitimate election. Since then, Maduro has put more and more of the nation’s government under his boot, and he’s now on the verge of claiming his final prize. With Venezuela’s legislative body filled with the dictator’s cronies, Maduro will have subverted the entire government to his will.

Guaidó will still have some ability to fight back. President-elect Joe Biden and leaders in other countries have vowed to support his cause, and he controls a large segment of the country’s financial assets, including the Venezuelan Central Bank’s accounts in the US, the oil company Citgo, and gold in the Bank of England.

The problem, experts say, is that this influence is more external than internal. Once he’s officially out of the National Assembly, Guaidó and his allies won’t be able to stop contracts and agreements Maduro wants to sign with world powers like China and Russia for resource extraction or laws Maduro wants to pass that could curtail civil society and pro-democracy groups, experts say.

Maduro, then, found a way to ensure his reign over the last few years. And after Sunday, his seat on the throne almost surely will be secured.