CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s opposition faces a critical test on Sunday, when its leader, Juan Guaidó, will seek reelection as head of the National Assembly — a title that forms the basis of his recognition as Venezuela’s true head of state by nearly 60 countries around the globe.
For Guaidó, the vote amounts to a do-or-die moment. One year ago, he declared President Nicolás Maduro a usurper for claiming victory in tainted elections and declared himself Venezuela’s rightful leader — an assertion based on Guaidó’s status as head of the assembly. But after a year of failed attempts to oust Maduro, Guaidó is now struggling to maintain opposition unity, confronting flagging domestic support and scrambling to counter an alleged plot against him.
Maduro’s socialist government has sought to thwart Guaidó’s reelection by allegedly bribing and intimidating lawmakers to turn against him. Should enough of them abandon Guaidó on Sunday, the Washington-backed 36-year-old would no longer be able to defend his presidential claim as being rooted in the Venezuelan constitution.
“It would create an international disruption and put us in a very critical situation,” said Luis Stefanelli, a Venezuelan lawmaker now living in exile in the United States. “We need Guaidó there. The government knows it.”
Discovery of the alleged plot last month, Guaidó loyalists say, has helped them to counter it. And they are cautiously optimistic about Guaidó’s reelection. In an effort designed to enhance his chances, U.S. officials in recent weeks have privately reiterated their support of Guaidó to major players within the Venezuelan opposition, according to three people familiar with the effort.
In addition, opposition officials have authorized pro-Guaidó lawmakers in exile to vote remotely on Sunday, ensuring a larger pool of votes and avoiding the use of stand-ins who some fear may have been bought off.
The math appears to be in Guaidó’s favor. Opposition parties make up more than 60 percent of the assembly and Guaidó needs a simple majority to be reelected as head of the body. Pollsters predict he is likely to muster the votes he needs, and no one is running against him.
Yet the risk remains, observers say, that he may not secure enough votes. The assembly includes more than 40 pro-Maduro lawmakers, and at least seven more who belong to small parties that have turned against Guaidó. They blame him for a range of wrongs: overpromising on how quickly Maduro could be ousted, backing painful U.S. sanctions, and agreeing to sit in doomed negotiations with Maduro’s government.
What worries Guaidó backers most, however, are revelations that more than a dozen lawmakers may have accepted bribes in an alleged plot that the opposition has dubbed “Operation Scorpion.”
Last month, the heads of the Inclusive Democratic Movement (MDI) disclosed that one of its lawmakers, Kelly Perfecto, had confessed to taking a 50,000-euro bribe. She told the heads of her party that she and 13 other opposition lawmakers had secretly met on Nov. 27 with Maduro, his wife, Cilia Flores, and two other major government figures — Diosdado Cabello and Tareck El Aissami. In the meeting, Perfecto claimed, the 14 of them agreed to vote against Guaidó in exchange for cash, according to MDI chief Nicmer Evans.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Evans said the lawmakers were promised a total of 1 million euros before the vote. The plan, he said, also involved creating a new party that would later field a candidate to replace Guaidó as head of the assembly. Perfecto has been ejected from the party, he said.
Perfecto did not respond to a request for comment.
“What’s going on here is simple,” Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy to Venezuela, told reporters in Washington two weeks ago. “The National Assembly will vote on January 5, and the regime is using a combination of threats, arrests, and bribes — up to $500,000 per vote, we have been told — to stop the reelection of Juan Guaidó.”
To thwart Guaidó, Maduro’s government would need to enlist 30 lawmakers, or slightly fewer if the overall pool of lawmakers is smaller.
To improve Guaidó’s chances, the National Assembly passed a law last month that allows more than 20 lawmakers driven into exile by Maduro’s government to vote remotely. Some opposition leaders, however, fear that Maduro’s government may seek to block communication links on Sunday, and perhaps even stop lawmakers from interior cities from traveling to the session in Caracas.
“This is a new opportunity [for Maduro] to take control of” the National Assembly, said Felix Seijas, political analyst and director of the Delphos polling agency. “The people are tired. The international community is tired. If Guaidó loses, his whole movement would end up down the river.”
Yet even if Guaidó is reelected, his movement still faces difficult challenges at time when Venezuela remains trapped in one of the worst economic implosions of modern times. Opposition parties are holding intense meetings to draft new strategies after underestimating Maduro’s ability to hold on to power, and failing to establish enough support within the military to prompt it to switch allegiance.
“We didn’t end the year with the results we and the country wanted,” said Miguel Pizarro, an exiled lawmaker who is close to Guaidó. “To keep acting as if everything is OK is not the right strategy and is not realistic.”
According to people close to Guaidó, his team is moving toward a plan that would seek to increase pressure on Maduro domestically while also positioning Guaidó as more of a “real president.” He may also seek to distribute more food and medicine to needy Venezuelans and create a new cabinet that includes professionals outside of traditional opposition parties.
Yet corruption scandals within the opposition are hindering efforts to revive the movement, and opposition leaders remain divided on key strategy points.
Maduro appears poised to call new elections for the National Assembly later this year, and opposition leaders are split on whether to participate. Some argue in favor of a boycott, given past allegations of election fraud under Maduro. Others have said they would participate only if the election is part of a negotiated deal that also includes a presidential vote to replace Maduro.
Still others say the opposition must field candidates either way, arguing that a boycott could mean losing any chance of maintaining opposition control of the National Assembly.
“We have to correct, improve, redouble efforts, and be loyal to one idea, to make 2020 the definitive year,” Guaidó said in a video posted on Twitter this week.
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Faiola reported from Miami.