Venezuela's Prolonged Power Struggle Over Who's In Charge Continues

Mar 20, 2019
Originally published on March 20, 2019 8:05 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How is the president of Venezuela still in power? Nicolas Maduro faces the pressure of much of the world, and opposition leader Juan Guaido was named acting president eight weeks ago with the support of the legislature. The United States and other nations recognized Guaido, and the U.S. is also moving to choke off the oil revenue that supports the socialist government. NPR's Philip Reeves has been asking how Maduro resists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Juan Guaido is in his fortress. This is the only place in Venezuela he controls - the National Assembly in the capital, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Guaido is president of this Parliament. He, his supporters and more than 50 nations also consider him president of the entire country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Guaido signs off on some diplomatic appointments and a few new laws. He looks presidential in his dark suit. Yet on the streets outside, the police and soldiers behind the barricades answer to a different master, Guaido's adversary, Maduro. When Guaido first launched his campaign to oust Maduro, many of his supporters thought victory would come quickly. Now, they're getting worried.

JUAN ANDRES MEJIA: It is true that we're running out of options. We're getting close to a point where us Democratic politicians have nothing else to do in order to bring about change.

REEVES: Juan Andres Mejia is 32. Like Guaido, he belongs to a generation of young Venezuelan opposition leaders who spend their lives working on ousting Maduro in the name of restoring democracy. Mejia says he trained for that.

MEJIA: However, I am not trained to take up arms and fight against a trained army. That time may come, and it won't be my time. It will be the time of others. And I pray that we can find a different solution before that. But it is true that we cannot avoid talking about this at this point.

REEVES: Economist Jose Toro Hardy used to be on the board of Venezuela's state-owned oil company before Maduro's socialist mentor, Hugo Chavez, took power in 1999. These days, Toro Hardy is tracking Maduro's government finances.

How is he still surviving?

JOSE TORO HARDY: Don't ask me because I don't know. I don't understand it either. He can survive by printing more money, but that's all he can do right now.

REEVES: U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports are wiping out a huge chunk of the Maduro government's income. The country's just endured the biggest power outage in its history. Venezuela's economy was already wrecked by hyperinflation. Toro Hardy says now it's crashing.

TORO HARDY: I would say that Maduro is like a plane without fuel. He cannot fly anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Maduro supporters gather on the streets of the capital. Some privately admit they're pressured to attend big rallies like this. If they don't show up, they risk losing government jobs and vital benefits, including heavily subsidized food. Many Venezuelans say fear plays a large part in the way Maduro maintains control.

JAIME: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Maduro survives through terror," says Jaime, an accountant who only gives his first name for fear of reprisals. He says Venezuelans are particularly afraid of Colectivos, a pro-government militia with a record for extreme violence and intimidation. Yet Maduro does have followers who genuinely believe in him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

ALEJANDRO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Step into the ramshackle home of a man called Alejandro. He'll only give his first name because he says he's not authorized to speak. Alejandro's 65 and a lifelong communist. When he talks about Maduro, he tears up.

ALEJANDRO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: He's convinced the U.S. is at war with Maduro to seize Venezuela's oil and says he'll defend him if Guaido carries out his promise to march on the presidential palace. No one here doubts Maduro would fall if he loses the support of his top military commanders. Yet, the army's high command remains loyal. Political analyst and pollster Luis Vicente Leon thinks army commanders are afraid to switch sides until they know they're safe.

LUIS VICENTE LEON: You need to create a clear strategy that gives to them the trust they need in order to produce any change in Venezuela. Otherwise, they are going to maintain the status quo.

REEVES: Leon makes another point - Maduro may be highly unpopular. In a poll last month, he scored 14 percent compared with Guaido's 61. Yet don't make the mistake, says Leon, of thinking the collapse of Venezuela's economy will necessarily be enough to bring Maduro down.

LEON: They thought the same with Cuba, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe or North Korea.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.