Venezuelan opposition faces fading enthusiasm

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to residents to present his unity plan to Venezuelans, in Maiquetia, Venezuela, Saturday, Feb. 19, 2022. “For us, doing politics today in Venezuela is like doing politics in any country 100 years ago,” Guaido said in an interview earlier in the week. “We have to go one by one, house by house, assemblies, organization, political events that communicate for us, not the other way around.” (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
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Associated Press

MAIQUETIA, Venezuela (AP) — Emily Mayora’s family once supported the opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, especially when a fresh young leader injected life into that movement three years ago and drew huge crowds into the street.

But when the same leader showed up recently to rally support in Maiquetia, a town on the Caribbean Sea, Mayora didn’t bother to walk a block to see him. She stayed in the little store she runs from her home, selling soda and snacks while Juan Guaidó, made a speech to about 90 people.

Her disappointment is widely shared in Venezuela, where the economy is dismal and many people are fed up both with the government and the groups that oppose it.

“I don’t believe in either side, neither the opponents nor the ruling party,” the mother of two said. “Why? Because they promise and promise and do not deliver. They get up there, ‘We’re going to get rid this nefarious government,’ just talk. There are many people here who do not leave their homes (to attend the gathering) — only a few do —because they no longer believe in any of this.”

That broad malaise follows a brief burst of enthusiasm generated by a few notable local election victories and it undercuts opposition efforts to reconnect with supporters after a pandemic-forced hiatus of large marches and gatherings.

Guaidó, then the head of congress, declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate leader in 2019, asserting Maduro’s reelection had been illegitimate. He drew enormous crowds of backers into the streets while also winning widespread international recognition from the U.S., Canada and many European nations.

But much of the momentum seems to have evaporated.

Guaidó’s popularity has dropped from about 60% three years ago to under 15% in February, according to the the Venezuela-based polling firm Datanalisis.

That’s because many believe he lacks a viable way to oust Maduro, who has held power since 2013, said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and professor at Tulane University.

“Unless it’s somebody who’s just really enamored with Guaidó or somehow close to the opposition movement, it’s pretty hard to find people that think that this is the guy,” Smilde said.

“Most everyone else thinks, ‘Well, this just led to nothing; nothing’s changed.’ And they’re going to remain passive until they see some kind of really different new offering.”

Government crackdowns, too, have made many wary of getting involved.

Domestically, some key opposition leaders — and some vocal citizens — have been imprisoned or fled abroad. The government has squeezed out opposition and most independent news outlets. Many fear that expressing opposition could endanger their access to subsidized goods distributed by the government.

Internationally, Guaidó’s failure to capitalize on his initial burst of popularity has dimmed his appeal. Several of the countries that once recognized Guaidós parallel government no longer do so.

A much smaller crowd turned up on a narrow, dead-end street in a hillside neighborhood last month to hear Guaidó, still just 38. Some had been bused in and wore the orange or blue t-shirts of political parties in his U.S-backed movement. Others stood outside their homes to listen and a few walked over to shake his hand.

But for many, daily routine continued. A man delivered water to homes, another left for work. Mayora, 44, kept her shop open. A customer struggled to do math trying to figure out how best to stretch $5.

“People right now have become very selective, if you will, about the things they attend to and the things they put energy and effort into,” said Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center for Political and Government Studies at the Andres Bello Catholic University.

“When you tell people, ‘Well, we are going to protest,’ people are going to tell you, ‘Well, exactly what for and what is it going to be used for? And what is this protest going to lead to? And why is this one going to work if the other didn’t work?’ So there are very, very low expectations” for change.

Only about 42% of registered voters participated in November’s regional elections and Alarcon said many people do not think that their vote will be respected.

The socialist government won most of the races, but it suffered a notable setback in the northwest state of Barinas, where the family of the governing movement’s founder, the late President Hugo Chavez, had governed for more than 20 years. The opposition candidate was retroactively disqualified while leading the vote count. Electoral authorities then scheduled do-over for January — and disqualified two other opposition candidates. Yet the opposition eventually won again, shocking the ruling party.

Government employee William Gomez was among the throngs who turned out for Guaidó in 2019, but says he won’t do it again.

“I no longer believe in anyone,” Gomez, 60, said shortly after Guaidó finished his speech. “What are we going to do if these gentlemen do not make good politics? Another leader who really dedicates himself to the people has to be born.”

Nearby, Yoliany Salazar said party organizers like herself were working to change the minds of people like Gomez.

“It is a little ant work, a little-by-little-type work,” she said, and echoed Guaidós assertions of progress, such as an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible crimes against humanity committed against protesters in 2017.