It has been four years since Venezuela’s interim government was set up by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó and a coalition of opposition parties. This was done in response to the repression of Nicolás Maduro’s regime, which dissolved the country’s democratic institutions in 2017. However, the founding objective of the shadow government – to achieve a democratic transition – has never been achieved.
On Thursday, December 29, three of the four major Venezuelan opposition parties – Acción Democrática, Primero Justicia and Un Nuevo Tiempo – began voting on a proposal to annul the parallel institutional architecture that Guaidó has overseen since January 23 of 2019. That day – by virtue of his position as head of the National Assembly – he assumed the role of “interim president,” with the support of around 60 countries, such as Peru, Colombia, Canada, Spain and the United States. He did so during a massive rally in Caracas, where he championed the removal of the Chavistas from power via internal and international political pressure.
Things have changed drastically since then. More than six million Venezuelans have fled the country as refugees; tensions among the parties are at an all-time high. In recent days, the continuity of Guaidó's leadership has gathered support among civil society groups… but except for Guaidó's Voluntad Popular party (led by exiled former political prisoner Leopoldo López) and minority parties such as Encuentro Ciudadano and Causa R, most major opposition organizations no longer wish to continue propping up a shadow presidency.
The numbers are clear: last week, 72 of 104 former deputies who supported Guaidó in 2019 voted in favor of eliminating the interim presidency and replacing it with a leadership committee.
“The interim government is not the raison d’être of the democratic struggle. It was a necessary instrument at the time, but now we are appointing a commission for the protection of assets,” argued Deputy Alfonso Marquina. Much of Venezuela’s gold and currency is held in foreign countries, who still do not support transferring it back to Maduro and his allies, on the expectation that it will be embezzled.
Only 23 parliamentarians rejected the idea of eliminating Guaidó's post. Furthermore, they described the proposal as a “parliamentary coup.” They fear that if the interim presidency is abolished, the path will be open for “international recognition of the Maduro regime.” The group went on to reference the gross human rights violations of the government in Caracas, denounced by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.
The Constitutional Bloc of Venezuela – which brings together prominent Venezuelan jurists – also warned of the institutional, political, economic and social consequences that the end of this opposition structure would entail. For instance, more than $3 billion in Venezuelan funds frozen abroad – allocated for social care in the devastated country – would potentially be transferred back to Maduro’s government, with no oversight.
In a survey conducted at the beginning of December by polling company Delphos, 56.8% of Venezuelans said they agreed with the complete “disappearance” of the interim government. Meanwhile, 15% expressed their preference for it to continue… but without Guaidó at the helm.
A few weeks ago, Guaidó requested to extend his term as interim president by one year – but the members of the parallel parliament resoundingly refused. It is worth noting that all of the 104 deputies were elected in the 2015 legislative elections – the last legitimate elections held in Venezuela, before the regime dissolved the National Assembly – and have never had their mandates renewed by the public.
When Guaidó launched his challenge against Maduro, he put in place a shadow institutional structure to combat the leftist Bolivarian government, which has been in power without interruption since 1999, first under Hugo Chávez and then under his successor, Maduro. Guaidó appointed ambassadors, international representatives at the OAS and the United Nations, ad hoc presidents of state companies such as oil giant PDVSA, as well as directors of institutions such as the Central Bank of Venezuela. With the entire judiciary hand-picked by Maduro, he even set up a Supreme Court in exile.
Thanks to support from the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries, Guaidó managed to ensure that billions of dollars in Venezuelan state assets held abroad would be kept beyond the control of the official government in Caracas. This leverage helped him avoid being jailed – although he and his family members have faced constant threats, harassment and political bans. But over the years, the parallel government has weakened, due to the mismanagement of funds and an inability to force a democratic transition. The structure did not manage to prevent the collapse of Venezuelan society and the exodus of millions of low-income Venezuelans, who have fled the regime in droves.
Cornered by Maduro’s persecution and the political disenchantment of Venezuelans, the opposition is facing a new dilemma about which course to take. Some opposition leaders wish to organize primaries next year to prepare for the 2024 presidential elections, in which Guaidó intends to stand as a candidate – others feel that any proposed electoral process will be rigged.
The United States – once the main supporter of Guaidó, who was received with honors at the White House during the Trump administration – has now thawed relations with Maduro’s government. President Joe Biden is in search of a new oil market, given rising gas prices caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Venezuela has the largest petroleum reserves in the world.
Several high-level US officials have visited Caracas for talks since the start of 2022. In addition, Chevron – one of America’s largest energy corporations – is in negotiations to restart its activities in the South American country, years after Hugo Chávez expropriated its assets without compensation. Other European energy giants – such as Spain’s Repsol – are also looking at capitalizing on Maduro’s shift to partial privatization, which has been initiated to salvage an economy destroyed by Chavista rule.
With all these potential partnerships emerging, it remains to be seen if foreign treasuries would agree to manage frozen Venezuelan funds if Guaidó's post is dissolved. Handing over state assets may also be one of Maduro’s preconditions to allowing Western investment in his oil sector.
In one major point of contention, 31 tons of Venezuelan gold – currently held by the Bank of England – are the focus of a legal challenge by both Maduro’s government and Guaidó's coalition. While British courts have recognized the ad hoc boards appointed by the opposition leader, many EU countries have been withdrawing support to the interim president. The fate of assets like these will be up in the air in the coming days, should Guaidó really be facing the end of his shadow government.
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