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Venezuela: Opposition Hopes Fade Despite Massive Popular Support

Sol Castro Sánchez was a picture of elation as she took to the streets of Caracas in the days after Juan Guaidó launched his dramatic bid to topple Nicolás Maduro on 23 January.

“I guess this is what people in Germany felt in 1989 when the wall came down,” the retired professor enthused as she marched through Venezuela’s capital with tens of thousands of jubilant protesters and a homemade placard that read: “Enough is enough! We want them out!”

Six months later, that excitement – and with it Castro’s conviction that change is nigh – is fading.

“At that time, I felt you could reach out and you could grasp it,” the 63-year-old caraqueña admitted this week. “I don’t have that feeling any more.”

When Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s rightful interim leader on 23 January – and was recognised by dozens of foreign governments, including Britain and the US – the young opposition leader and his backers believed Maduro would fall within days.

Nicolás Maduro holds on to power despite domestic dissent and international pressure. Photograph: Manaure Quintero/Reuters

 

But half a year later, a massive show of domestic dissent and international pressure has failed to dislodge Hugo Chávez’s unpopular successor.

“This was a very high stakes gamble … and it hasn’t really paid off,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based expert for Crisis Group and author of a report on possible solutions to Venezuela’s crisis. “Plan A has certainly not worked.”

That reality has forced Venezuela’s opposition to begin exploring alternatives, particularly after a botched bid to spark a military uprising on 30 April.

This month, Guaidó and Maduro representatives met on the Caribbean island of Barbados for the latest round of talks optimists hope could lead to free presidential elections in 2020, but which pessimists dismiss as a stalling tactic from Venezuela’s wily authoritarian leader.

Guaidó, meanwhile, has busied himself touring his crisis-stricken country – he has visited 13 of Venezuela’s 23 states since January – in an effort to keep his campaign alive. We are getting close to a real solution,” he claimed last week.

Some have already given up on the 35-year-old politician, amid reports that even Donald Trump – Guaidó’s key backer – is losing interest in his crusade.

The commitment of another crucial regional supporter, Jair Bolsonaro, is also in doubt, after Brazil’s far-right president recently dropped a mention of Guaidó from a speech for fear of upsetting Russia’s Vladimir Putin who, along with China’s Xi Jinping, continues to support Maduro. (On Friday, Bolsonaro said he hoped Russia would “help resolve the Venezuela question”.)

“Guaidó is just like the rest of them [in the opposition], he has no plan,” complained Frank Rengifo, a 31-year-old army sergeant who fled over the border into Colombia in mid-March hoping for a US-backed military invasion that never came.

Rengifo – who lives in a hotel near the border town of Cúcuta with hundreds of other stranded defectors – said it was time to up the ante. He hoped a more radical leader, María Corina Machado, could take the lead in toppling Maduro.

María Corina Machado, a radical opposition leader, at an anti-government protest in Caracas. Photograph: Fernando Llano/AP

 

“Guaidó can keep calling protests but people have stopped caring,” he said.

Valentina Landaeta, a 23-year-old businesswoman who joined pro-Guaidó protests at the start of the year, said she had also lost faith. “Probably we are not going to have change,” she conceded. “It’s a little sad. We put our hopes in him.”

In February, Landaeta recalled feeling sure Venezuela was entering a new era. “We were wrong,” she said.

But Castro, who has continued to attend Guaidó’s dwindling demonstrations, rejected such pessimism and said she still saw him as the only person capable of defeating Maduro. “It has to be Guaidó,” she said.

Of Guaidó’s doubters, Castro complained: “We love heroes. But once they are defeated, or perceived as defeated, we throw them in the trash. It happened to Henrique Capriles. It happened to Leopoldo López,” she said of two other prominent opposition leaders who have tried – and failed – to defeat chavismo. “And I feel it has happened with Guaidó.”

A man searches for food in the rubbish on a pavement in Caracas. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP 

Polls suggest support for Guaidó has dipped but remains high, at about 57%, despite the lack of concrete progress. That compares with just 10% for Maduro, according to the the Venezuelan pollster Datanalisis.

Juan Andrés Mejía, a close Guaidó ally, said he understood public frustration and accepted there was “always a risk” the international community would be distracted by crises such as Iran.

“Obviously people are anxious, people are desperate … But it is wrong to say that all is lost,” Mejía insisted, claiming “huge progress” since January.

“We all wanted this to end sooner. But we are dealing with a dictatorship that kills, that tortures, that robs,” added Mejía, forced underground by a crackdown on opposition politicians supposedly involved in April’s failed insurrection. “Defeating such an opponent is much harder to do than most people may believe.”

Gunson agreed there were things for Guaidó’s camp to celebrate even though January’s “fervour” had fizzled.

Guaidó – who will mark the six-month anniversary of his challenge on Tuesday with fresh protests – has retained widespread support. Venezuela’s notoriously fractious opposition has yet to fall apart, despite constant “sniping from the wings” from more hardline rivals.

But if talks come to nothing, Venezuela’s economic and humanitarian catastrophe would worsen and the future would be bleak. “There is a real danger this could escalate into some kind of long-term low-intensity armed conflict within Venezuela,” Gunson warned.

As her long wait for a brighter future drags on, Castro said she sought solace in the past. “History tells you that this is not going to last forever. It is not going to last 100 years,” she insisted. “I know it’s going to end – sooner or later it will.”

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