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Venezuela Opposition Debilitated as Biden Set to Take Office

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President Nicolás Maduro spoke in December after legislative elections described by opposition members as illegitimate.

Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters

When Venezuela’s regime takes over the National Assembly on Tuesday, it will put the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó in his most precarious position since becoming head of the movement to oust the authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro two years ago.

For the current government, Mr. Guaidó will no longer be head of congress in Venezuela now that Mr. Maduro’s lieutenants are about to be sworn in to lead the 277-member National Assembly. Mr. Guaidó’s position as president of the assembly had given the U.S. and more than 50 countries justification to recognize him over Mr. Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

Mr. Maduro has publicly said his government is willing to engage with the U.S., though past efforts at brokering a dialogue failed.

An official on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said that it has no plans to negotiate with Mr. Maduro, adding that it has had no communications with the Venezuelan regime.

“President-elect Biden has been clear throughout the campaign and during the transition that he believes Maduro is a dictator and that the Biden administration will stand with the Venezuelan people and their call for a restoration of democracy through free and fair elections,” the official said.

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Juan Guaidó is increasingly isolated, with many in the opposition leadership outside Venezuela.

Photo: Manaure Quintero/Reuters

The U.S., the official added, will seek to rebuild multilateral pressure on Mr. Maduro, call for the release of political prisoners, implement sanctions against Venezuelan officials guilty of corruption and human-rights abuses, and grant Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans living in the U.S.

As Mr. Maduro tightens his grip on congress, the country’s opposition will soon be dealt another blow. Some remaining opposition lawmakers close to Mr. Guaidó plan to flee the country, fearing jail if they remain in Venezuela, opposition activists said. With no powers or control over territory, what Mr. Guaidó and his team call an interim government is now little more than a virtual entity, making pro-democracy statements through social media and Zoom. The Trump administration has said it still considers Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s only democratically elected leader.

With many in the opposition leadership now outside Venezuela, Mr. Guaidó is increasingly isolated, living in a small apartment in Caracas with his wife and small daughter and wondering whether the secret police will arrest him.

As Mr. Biden prepares to be inaugurated as U.S. president Jan. 20, Venezuelan opposition leaders said they are shifting away from strategies to spur a revolt to force Mr. Maduro from power. Instead, they said they would lean more toward finding a way to alleviate food and medicine shortages in a country facing economic calamity. A third of Venezuelans can’t access three meals a day, according to the U.N. World Food Program. As many as half endure daily power outages while they struggle to get by with annual inflation near 2,000%, according to the Caracas business-consulting firm Ecoanalítica.

Since the U.S. first recognized Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president in January 2019, Washington has imposed oil and financial sanctions and drummed up international support for a movement to overthrow Mr. Maduro. That effort has failed.

Now many opposition activists, as well as former advisers to President Trump, are saying changes are needed.

“The whole Guaidó interim-government scheme probably outlived its life,” said Juan Cruz, who previously advised the White House on Venezuela policy. He said the U.S. needs to reconsider its broad sanctions, which targeted state companies and figures accused of corruption and human-rights abuses.

“January represents a new day for a lot of players: the opposition, the U.S. administration and even the regime,” said Mr. Cruz.

Mr. Guaidó, in a recent video address on Twitter, sought to instill confidence in his movement by assuring that it is unified and would lead the country toward free elections. “The dictatorship is not going to leave willingly, and that’s why we need to make them leave,” he said.

He called on supporters to protest in the streets on Tuesday as Mr. Maduro’s allies take their seats in the National Assembly. He also urged Venezuelan envoys operating in other countries to lobby host nations to increase pressure on Mr. Maduro.

But he proposed little else. And in Venezuela, the economic meltdown and jailings have most Venezuelans preoccupied with getting access to scarce running water and fuel rather than thinking about protests.

“You’ve lost the capacity to mobilize people,” said Luis Vicente León, a political analyst who directs the Caracas polling firm Datanálisis. “Today there’s no one pressuring Maduro inside Venezuela—no political negotiations, no election participation or protests. The result is the complete pulverization of the opposition.”

In a recent poll, Datanálisis found only 25% of respondents said they had hopes for a democratic transition in the country. Ecoanalítica estimates that the economy contracted by 23% in 2020 after shrinking 40% a year earlier.

Hopelessness in the country is expected to increase the outflow of desperate Venezuelans, which now totals five million. The Organization of American States estimates that the number of Venezuelan migrants could swell to seven million by the end of 2021, more than the number of Syrians who have fled that country’s brutal war.

The political standoff is making the search for solutions to the humanitarian crisis difficult. Opposition lawmakers allied with Mr. Guaidó recently approved a resolution on a Zoom videoconference calling for them to continue in office after Tuesday, when their five-year congressional terms ended. They argued that the legislative elections Mr. Maduro held in December were illegitimate, as did the U.S. and many other countries.

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Members of the ruling party will take their seats this week in the 277-member National Assembly.

Photo: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg News

Mr. Maduro said in a recent address that he would crack down on any lawmakers trying to extend their mandate. “I won’t be afraid to act fiercely to apply the law,” the leftist leader shouted in the televised speech, flanked by the military high command.

At times Mr. Maduro has challenged Mr. Guaidó by taking over opposition political parties. But Mr. Guaidó also faces fissures within his own movement. Democratic Action, one of the main political parties in the opposition coalition, abstained from a vote on keeping Mr. Guaidó as assembly chief. Some lawmakers said they have lost faith in his team.

Oscar Ronderos, a lawmaker who has broken from Mr. Guaidó, described the current opposition movement as “an interim government that does not exist, in a National Assembly that doesn’t serve anyone.”

The movement’s internal discord, according to opposition lawmakers, could further damage its credibility, especially among countries in the European Union that advocate negotiations with the regime to permit humanitarian aid and later an agreement on free elections.

‘Today, there’s no one pressuring Maduro inside Venezuela—no political negotiations, no election participation or protests’

— Luis Vicente León, political analyst

In recent weeks, the Maduro regime displayed its repression by arbitrarily detaining the directors of organizations that provide food to poor Venezuelans and sentencing six former executives of Citgo to long prison terms. The U.S. government has said the executives—five of whom are U.S. citizens—are being held unjustly.

“Rather than being confidence building, it’s confidence eroding,” for negotiation hopes, Mr. Cruz said.

Julio Borges, who from exile in Colombia serves as the top diplomat for Mr. Guaidó’s movement, said he expects the U.S. and its allies won’t go easy on Mr. Maduro.

“The most important thing for the democratic struggle in Venezuela is that Maduro is still unable to stabilize the country or increase his popularity,” he said.

When it comes to president-elect Joe Biden’s foreign policy in Asia, Europe and Latin America, he is likely to focus on issues like transatlantic cooperation, U.S.-China relations and immigration. WSJ journalists examine the impact a Biden administration could have on U.S. allies around the world. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters (Originally published Nov. 12, 2020)

Write to Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
As many as half of Venezuelans endure daily power outages while they struggle to get by with annual inflation near 2,000%, according to the Caracas business-consulting firm Ecoanalítica. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said 12,000%. (Corrected on Jan. 4.)

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