U.S. Bet Guaidó Could Transform Venezuela. It Hasn’t Happened.

America threw its might behind Juan Guaidó when he claimed the presidency, a direct challenge to President Nicolás Maduro. A year later, the Trump administration has little to show for its efforts.

Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, at a makeshift meeting of the National Assembly at the headquarters of a newspaper on Sunday.
Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, at a makeshift meeting of the National Assembly at the headquarters of a newspaper on Sunday.Credit...Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

CARACAS — A charismatic, 35-year-old politician steps out before a crowd of thousands in Venezuela and claims the presidency in the biggest challenge to date to the country’s autocratic leader.

Within minutes, the United States — followed by dozens of countries — throws its support behind the challenger, Juan Guaidó, backed by crippling sanctions designed to weaken the current government and reinforce his hand.

That was last January — the beginning of what the Trump administration said was an all-out effort to oust Venezuela’s autocratic leader, Nicolás Maduro, in which “all options,” even military ones, were on the table.

But a year later, the administration’s policy has been frustrated. Mr. Guaidó is so removed from power that, this weekend, he was barred from even entering the legislature, where he was seeking re-election as the body’s leader.

In one dramatic moment, captured on video, a desperate Mr. Guaidó tried to scale the spiked metal fence that surrounds the assembly building. But government forces pulled him down while inside, Mr. Maduro’s supporters elected one of their allies to lead the legislature — a move intended to deprive Mr. Guaidó of the position that gives him legal cover to stake a rival claim on the presidency.

The Trump administration on Monday sought to cast the events in Caracas as a sign that Mr. Maduro’s power was waning. But at a time when the administration is already facing crises at home — an impeachment inquiry — and abroad — the repercussions of an attack that killed Iran’s most powerful general — Mr. Maduro’s actions suggest that the gamble the United States took on Mr. Guaidó is looking increasingly like a failure.

“It’s impossible to overstate what a huge blow all of this is to U.S. strategy in Venezuela,” said Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America.

On Monday, Mr. Guaidó and many of his allies vowed to press on with their campaign to bring down Mr. Maduro, whose leadership has dragged Venezuela, an oil-rich nation, into the seventh year of a devastating economic crisis that has left much of the population without access to sufficient food or medicine.

The day before, in defiance of Mr. Maduro’s forces, opposition legislators gathered in the headquarters of a newspaper and, in an emotional ceremony before a Venezuelan flag, held their own vote, which they said re-elected Mr. Guaidó as head of the assembly.

At a news conference in downtown Caracas, Mr. Guaidó said he would enter the country’s legislative building on Tuesday, when this year’s session begins, with his “chest forward” and “risking skin,” to assume the role of president of the assembly.

“We’re going to do our work,” he said, condemning the weekend’s “violent takeover” of the assembly as a “farce that nobody recognizes.”

American officials in Washington sought to bolster that narrative.

“What you saw yesterday was something the regime didn’t want to do,” Elliott Abrams, the State Department’s special envoy for Venezuela issues, told reporters at the State Department. “They wanted to win the vote in the National Assembly, and they couldn’t do it. With weeks and months of effort, they couldn’t do it, and they were forced to this last desperate resort of using the military.”

“So I don’t think they come out of yesterday stronger,” Mr. Abrams said. “I think they come out of yesterday weaker.”

He said the United States was preparing to send more aid to support the opposition to Mr. Maduro, including funds to support an independent press, the National Assembly and other democratic institutions. Mr. Abrams also raised the threat of imposing more economic sanctions against Mr. Maduro’s government and its officials.

But he also said American officials had perhaps underestimated the level of Russian and Cuban support that had helped the Venezuelan president remain in power.

“We think all the time about how to do better,” Mr. Abrams said.

It was a far cry from a year ago, when Mr. Guaidó, a student activist turned legislator from the coastal city of La Guaira, took the helm of the country’s national assembly, the last major institution in the country controlled by the opposition.

Days into his mandate, Mr. Guaidó invoked an article of the Constitution that transfers power to the head of the Assembly if the presidency becomes vacant. Mr. Maduro’s most recent election, he claimed, had been a sham.

At the time, public anger at Mr. Maduro was hitting a fever pitch, and Mr. Guaidó, the son of a teacher and a taxi driver, was initially embraced by many as a fresh voice in a place where so many had failed.

But a year of high-stakes maneuvers by Mr. Guaidó — like trying to persuade the military to turn against the president and trying to bring in much-needed humanitarian aid across the border — failed to bring down Mr. Maduro, who retains firm control of the military and of the country’s resources.

Instead, Mr. Maduro appears to have tightened his grip on the country, jailing and threatening opponents. He is accused by the United Nations and human rights advocates of widespread human rights violations.

Millions of Venezuelans have spent the last few years on an emotional seesaw, pinning their hopes for change on one leader after another, only to watch them fail and the opposition fracture.

On Monday, many said the events of the weekend felt like a final, brutal crash.

“I don’t have hope anymore,” said Carlos Muñoz, 29, who sells ice cream from a cart in Caracas.

A year ago, Mr. Muñoz was planning to leave Venezuela for Peru, following millions of others who have fled the country to find work or escape persecution. When Mr. Guaidó appeared, he put his plans on hold.

After Sunday, though, he made the decision to leave.

“He lost the assembly,” said Mr. Muñoz of Mr. Guaidó “That was the only thing he had.”

José Caballero, 51, a taxi driver, said that he had survived every year by repeating to himself, “this is the year everything is changing, this is the year.”

“And nothing happens,” he went on, “now I don’t want to say anything like that anymore.”

In public, Mr. Guaidó has remained upbeat. But in private, the toll of the last year sometimes shows.

He spent one of last days of 2019 delivering presents to children in La Guaira, trailed by two government minders on motorbikes. In a lengthy interview between toy drops, he said his wife, Fabiana Rosales, and their toddler are followed even to their daughter’s preschool.

The rented apartment they share in a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas is half-empty, the home of a man who seems unsure where he will sleep tomorrow. The television is on the floor, child’s toys are stuffed in a corner, and the walls are bare, save for a large portrait of a Venezuelan nun named María de San José, known for aiding the ill.

Like many Venezuelans in the capital, he has running water about two hours a day.

At one point, when he raised the topic of his mother, who left the country for medical treatment that she could not find in Venezuela, his eyes turned red and he began to cry. “Of course I miss her,” he said.

Mr. Guaidó’s popularity has declined significantly in the last year, according to polling from the Caracas firm Datanálasis. But he remains the most popular politician in the country, according to the firm.

And in an interview, the firm’s director, José Gil Yepes, said Mr. Guaidó’s popularity may rise in the coming weeks, “because of all the things the government did wrong” on Sunday.

Mayrely Calderón, 39, a pharmacist, was among those who remained faithful to Mr. Guaidó. “He’s the one who will help us get rid of Maduro,” she said.

Julie Turkewitz and Ana Vanessa Herrero reported from Caracas. Lara Jakes reported from Washington.