Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters Juan Guaidó at a rally in Caracas, shortly after declaring himself interim president, January 2019.

The Venezuelan Opposition’s High-Stakes Assault on Maduro

Will Guaidó’s Gamble Pay Off?

On January 23, Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly shocked the world. It declared the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro, illegitimate, pronounced his office vacant, and proceeded to swear in National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as interim president in accordance with Venezuela’s constitutional provisions on presidential succession. Soon after, the United States, Canada, and most major governments in the Western Hemisphere recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

Such a bold and energetic move came as a surprise: 2018 had been a bleak year for Venezuela’s opposition. Despite having won control of the legislature in 2015 and led a massive civil disobedience campaign in 2017, the opposition seemed further than ever from removing Maduro’s deeply unpopular authoritarian government from office. The major anti-Maduro parties had spent the year fighting one another, arguing over whom to blame for their failure and leveling accusations that some had secretly sold out to the regime.

All the while, Venezuela’s economic and political crisis worsened. The economy has contracted by nearly 50 percent since Maduro first took office in 2013, oil production declined to levels not seen since 1950, and inflation reached an estimated annual rate of one million percent. Malnutrition afflicted many of the nearly 90 percent of Venezuelans who now live in poverty, and millions fled abroad in search of a better life, making Venezuela’s migration crisis the second worst in the world after Syria’s.

Yet Maduro hung on. His government clung to power with the help of financing from Russia and China, intelligence support from Cuba, and growing sales of gold to Turkey. Throughout 2018, Maduro consistently wrong-footed the opposition, even claiming victory in a presidential election in May that was deemed illegitimate by independent observers and over 50 foreign governments. For much of last year, it seemed as though Maduro had painted the opposition into a corner.

So what explains the sudden turnaround? Has Venezuela’s opposition gotten its mojo back? The answer is a qualified “Yes.” First, the opposition has at least temporarily overcome

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