The narrative of restoring a glorious past is only inspiring for those who prospered in pre-Chavez Venezuela. It resonates less among younger Venezuelans born after Chavez came to power, many of whom have fled, and older ones who still revere him. A vision that looks forward to a more participative, inclusive Venezuela, not back to an idealized past that fails to acknowledge its flaws, will ensure a lasting transition.
Gone are the heady days of early 2019 when Venezuela seemed near to deliverance from tyranny. Consumed by hubris, the Icarian opposition of Juan Guaido flew too close to the sun instead. Brushing aside its melted wings, the movement to oust President Nicolas Maduro is now resurfacing as a government in exile, pledging to keep pushing until he falls.
As the photogenic young face of the US-backed opposition who is widely recognized in the West as interim president, Guaido spends his time traveling Venezuela to rally supporters and project legitimacy. The crowds are smaller than they were back in January, when he first vowed to expel the “usurper”, establish a transition government and convene free elections. But after a failed aid campaign in February, a botched military uprising in April and deadlocked EU-sponsored negotiations this month in Barbados, Guaido is struggling to sustain morale and fend off cynicism in a broken country.
The view is rosier from Boston, New York, Washington and Miami, where Venezuela´s champagne diaspora and senior technocrats of the ancien regime regularly gather to plan reconstruction, rub elbows with future investors, intervene in US court cases tied to Venezuelan assets, and lobby the US government to toughen sanctions and grant protection to Venezuelan migrants. “Ad hoc” administrations of exiles are purporting to function as a shadow government, but without its own revenue. Venezuelan national oil company PdV´s US refining unit Citgo, severed from its parent by US sanctions, is now run by a Guaido-appointed board. An ad hoc attorney general, central bank board and multilateral representatives underpin the fledgling parallel authority that intends to swoop into Caracas the day Maduro leaves.
That day still looks far off. Maduro and his inner circle, backed by the military, show no sign of relenting. The US is tightening sanctions, but an early threat of military action proved hollow. The longer sanctions endure, the more Maduro gets to blame them for the economic catastrophe that was sown well before he succeeded the late Hugo Chavez in 2013, and the more sympathy he is starting to generate abroad. A meeting of the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement in Caracas this past weekend conveyed just that. At home, repression is still rampant, but Maduro’s government is adapting the oil industry, patching up the power grid and exploring non-dollar payment routes to adjust to life under sanctions, much like his allies in Havana, Moscow and Tehran.
Opposition leaders are relentless too, promoting a comprehensive economic plan while pushing back on oil-for-aid proposals that might ease suffering but give oxygen to their foe. Yet beyond elections, their post-Maduro political vision often seems like a shallow appeal to nostalgia. Witness the revival of PdV´s blue logo and Guaido’s promise to return the popular comedy Radio Rochela to the airwaves. Symbols matter, but the narrative of restoring a glorious past is only inspiring for those who prospered in pre-Chavez Venezuela. It resonates less among younger Venezuelans born after Chavez came to power, many of whom have fled, and older ones who still revere him. A vision that looks forward to a more participative, inclusive Venezuela, not back to an idealized past that fails to acknowledge its flaws, will ensure a lasting transition.
That idea is looking tough to reconcile with the opposition’s support from Donald Trump’s White House. Venezuela´s cause, long seen through Washington´s prism as a lever for Florida votes, has become further enmeshed in US politics with a controversial government decision to wrest funding from Central American countries — deemed to have failed to check illegal migration to the US — in favor of Guaido. That looks like a devil’s bargain for the opposition at a time when Venezuelans themselves face immigration barriers and xenophobia across the hemisphere.
Writing from his Jamaican exile more than two centuries ago, South American independence hero Simon Bolivar bemoaned a Venezuela “reduced to frightful desolation and almost absolute indigence”. His country is now tragically back where it started, not at Spain’s hands, but at those of the self-proclaimed heirs of Bolivar himself. It is up to Maduro’s opponents to throw off the modern yoke, without again burning their wings.