CARACAS, Venezuela—It was like the return of the king.
Juan Guaidó landed at Simon Bolívar Airport on Monday, March 5, at around noon EST, and the entire world was watching as he got out of the presidential plane. After live-tweeting his every move since leaving Venezuela on Feb. 22—including a viral video from inside the plane upon landing—the interim president walked the few hundred yards from the plane to immigration while the entire country held its breath.
Guaidó looked calm, almost cocky, as he passed through immigration and out into the streets to be met by thousands of adoring followers who had come to greet the man who represents hope and change in one of the world’s most broken countries. It appeared to be a success story, but according to most experts, this was not the expected outcome.
I’m having drinks with three senior diputados from the National Assembly a few days before Guaidó’s return and we’re discussing his absence. And, as I questioned the logic of it, they assured me that it was all going according to plan. He would sacrifice himself for the people.
"We need a hero. President Guaidó will return and be arrested and when he is, the intervention will happen and Maduro will be removed.”
And there is no question that Guaidó fits the bill.
I saw him for the first time a few weeks prior at Plaza Las Mercedes, right after he declared himself the rightful President of Venezuela. The masses had been gathering since the early morning and when I reached the square an hour before the set start time, there were already around 10,000 people waving flags and yelling for Nicolás Maduro’s resignation. Someone was throwing money in the air, stacks of useless Venezuelan currency, while holding a sign saying “Venezuela SOS.”
There was a strange mix of frustration and joy, as if these people were teetering on the edge of hope, but knew too much to fully give into it. Once Guaidó came on, the joy took over and even though he said nothing new or particularly surprising, he was greeted as a savior.
As powerful as the moment was, I could not help but think that it was reminiscent of 1998 and that other time the Venezuelan people chose an underdog to be the fixer of all things, a man named Hugo Chávez.
I spent the day before the Plaza Las Mercedes rally talking to my Venezuelan friend Alex, who is also a journalist and has seen Venezuela change from Chávez to Maduro. He sees a red thread throughout Venezuela’s modern political history.
According to Alex, Guaidó was always a placeholder and a lightning rod for a movement but wouldn't end up being president this time around, should it come down to a vote.
“Guaidó garners a cult of personality because my country has a historical preference for caudillos, the military-style authoritarians, and because he brought back a long-lost faith in politicians among everyday Venezuelans, but he will not end up being the president—he is just the precursor to real change.”
When asked who will be the magical third candidate, Alex immediately mentions Leopoldo López, the Voluntad Popular politician and former mayor of Chacao currently under house arrest. López has the credibility, Alex says, but without the stain of internal struggles that have plagued Guaidó since his grand declaration on Jan. 23.
“Guaidó is opening a lot of doors, but I doubt that he will end up walking through them.”
Guaidó’s path to the presidential palace, Miraflores, is not a given, and this is hardly the opposition’s first attempt to remove Maduro.
In the 2015 election, the opposition won the congress by a vast majority—113 opposition against 54 chavistas. In 2016 the supreme court ruled against the congress and said they were in violation of the constitution, tying their hands and rendering them politically impotent.
In July of that year, the opposition organized an unofficial referendum to put pressure on Maduro, calling for new legislative and judicial authorities and a transitional government. The Venezuelan people responded en masse, over 7 million people showing up to vote, but in the end the opposition chose not to use the overwhelming vote of no confidence against Maduro to take the issue further and it remained a symbolic non-action.
Over the next six months, protests erupted throughout Venezuela and over 230 protesters were killed by government forces and entities. By mid-2017, the government was cornered and it seemed the opposition had its moment to deliver the final blow. But when the cornered government called for dialogue, the opposition—rather than standing its ground—chose to accept Maduro’s offer.
As soon as the talks started the street protests died down. Maduro was able to regain his footing, and the opposition rolled over despite its overwhelming public support and broad congressional majority.
In 2018, there was another missed opportunity. Based on what they viewed as unconstitutional and unfair conditions the opposition chose not to participate in the elections.
The government paid two candidates to play the role of opposition, thus claiming a fair election, but rather than stage protests or attempt to enter the election to prove malfeasance they continued to complain from the sidelines, allowing the Maduro-directed charade to go on.
The elections were held on May 20, with only 25 percent of voters participating. Maduro received 6 million votes, 1.5 million less than in 2013 following the death of Chávez, but despite these numbers and the results being widely disputed both inside and outside the country, the opposition did very little. It was as if they were waiting for Guaidó.
This self-declared president offered hope to a people who had all but given up and when he publicly challenged Maduro, calling him a dictator and a usurper, the people responded. Once again people took to the streets by the tens of thousands. The fight had been ignited once more, but the renewed hope rested solely on one man’s shoulders and what his supporters didn’t know was that he would end up buckling under the weight.
"The opposition is failing because Guaidó bit off more than he could chew and now it looks like he’s improvising. He shouldn’t have left the country and relied on the international support. He lost national support by doing this. The fight is here in Caracas, not in Colombia or the U.S.”
Luis is a journalist who chose to leave Venezuela for Miami in 2005 but came back in 2017, thinking his country was about to change. Since then he has been thrown between hope and despair and with this latest fumble from the opposition, he has gone from loss of hope to outright rage.
"These people [the opposition politicians] are afraid of the street, of us! They are obsessed with this international support and finding a diplomatic solution, but they seem to be forgetting about all of the millions of people fighting on the streets and who give a damn about democracy.”
And he’s not alone in his anger. Guaidó is losing momentum, fast, and he has placed himself in the perilous position where his only salvation would be getting arrested or worse, thus fulfilling the promises made by him as well as in his name.
This focus on him as a person and the sole responsibility it brings fits perfectly into what Alex said about a culture that awaits a new messiah and, failing that, will try to build a cult of personality around a might-be messiah. Regardless of who will end up holding the presidency after this crisis, the focus remains on the individual rather than the ideology.
It is striking how little of this debate about Venezuela’s future has been a referendum on socialism, given the policies that brought the country to this point of no return. According to the opposition politicians I spoke to earlier in the week, the country has no real concept of socialism.
“When Chávez ran for president he only said the word socialism once. Once. He ran on a platform of socialism and implemented socialist policies, but he made sure to stay away from that word.”
Maybe that is why the political discourse in Venezuela has devolved into a cult of personality and why ideology is less of a factor in this crisis. The people in 1998 did not vote for a socialist ideology but for a person who promised them hope and 21 years later they are rallying in the streets for another man offering the very same thing.
Juan Guaidó may have international support, but within his own National Assembly his decision to declare himself President on January 23 came as a surprise. He has chosen not to bring the issue to a vote in the Assembly and rather position himself as a liberator who stands above the system within which he operates.
When I went to Las Mercedes rally a few weeks ago I saw women in the front holding pictures of the Virgin Mary and statues of Jesus and they were chanting Guaidó’s name.
I asked another group of women holding a large Venezuelan flag with Guaidó's name written all over it why they think he is the answer to the country’s problems and one of them said that he is the only one who stands up to Maduro and doesn’t back down.
“Guaidó has gotten the entire world to listen to us, and now Maduro has no place to go, no option but to step down.”
It is a beautiful sentiment but it seems to have been a misguided one, as Maduro so far has resisted the impulse to try to exterminate the competition. If Maduro continues to play it this safe he will most likely be able to kill off the opposition without harming a hair on Guaidó’s head, by simply watching them misplay their hand at every turn.
As the country has been hit by repeated massive blackouts, further crippling an already suffering population, public outrage is not merely directed at Nicolás Maduro but also at interim President Guaidó and an opposition that is expecting other actors to make the final push that the majority of the nation is waiting for.
“Enough with these rallies and the inspirational speeches—when are we marching on Miraflores?”
Luis’s frustrated words are echoed throughout the city, and the frustration is growing by the day as the divide between the political class and the people deepens, almost three months into this crisis.
In an attempt to re-mobilize, the opposition has been holding rallies throughout the country in the past few days, pointing to the blackouts and water shortages as yet another proof of Nicolás Maduro’s mismanagement of Venezuela, but the messaging seems to be either outdated or overdone as the public’s response is somewhat lackluster.
Guaidó himself is said to be working on a plan to turn the military and get it to help forcibly remove Maduro and, even though he doesn’t speak of it publicly, keep the paramilitary groups from taking over in the ensuing vacuum of power.
This plan would in all likelihood exclude an international military intervention, but trusting the Venezuelan military could turn out to be a crapshoot as its loyalties have yet to be truly tested. The country could end up having an Egypt-style interim military government, leaving the opposition behind and, for the third time in less than a decade, cheating the Venezuelan people out of their counter-revolution.
Letting the military lead could be the only viable option, especially given the recent arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela, but it will be a very hard sell to a public that has accepted Guaidó as its leader and been sold the dream of a heroic liberator. The opposition has relied on the traditional narrative and Juan Guaidó as the face of change and, given the massive public distrust toward the military and all other government entities, replacing him with it would mean risking any goodwill and momentum that remains.
Guaidó’s massive popularity may end up being his downfall, as he has become synonymous with the struggle for freedom. If he fails, the opposition fails with him and if that is the case Venezuela will be ruled by an emboldened Maduro, having survived the biggest challenge to his authority since he took office.
Guaidó has been presented and portrayed as the Messiah and as such he is expected to bring a miracle, and that is exactly what it will take now for the opposition to regain its upper hand after dropping the ball during the standoff over the humanitarian aid and spending much of his time nurturing an international alliance that so far has delivered little but beautiful promises, empty threats, and worsened privations.
Miracles are a tall order for any man at any time but for Venezuela today, they are just a recipe for disappointment, most likely another failed attempt at a new start. Should that be the outcome, the Venezuelan people’s fragile hope and freshly renewed faith in the political process would surely not recover and the nation would be left ripe for the picking to everyone from Maduro to Vladimir Putin to Hezbollah and all their interloping entities.
The hope expressed at Plaza Las Mercedes was lost somewhere between Caracas and Cúcuta and whether or not it will return is dependent on the opposition’s ability to retake the initiative from Nicolás Maduro and win back the hearts of its rightfully distrusting supporters.
The only thing everyone I spoke to seems to agree on is that time is running out and public patience along with it; the people want to take Miraflores while the opposition simply seems to want to take its time.
It has been just over two months since Juan Guaidó made that historic announcement and 30 million people thought they were weeks away from regime change. Now, Maduro is preparing for war and Juan Guaidó needs to choose his players—or at least a strategy—before he simply loses on walkover. The shine is off the halo and the Messiah is at risk of being exposed as just another man, unless he can pull off a last-minute resurrection.