The Mystery in Juan Guaidó’s Suitcase

January 23rd marked a full year since Juan Guaidó assumed the caretaker presidency. The way his influence has changed since then is evident, especially after his international tour. This unprecedented story could spin into many different scenarios.

It’s been only a month and a half of 2020 and there are two intertwined and consecutive great political stories: the attack on the National Assembly and the reaction by Juan Guaidó’s camp to it. The Speaker of the National Assembly, who can’t walk into the Parliament building, launched an international tour with the highest-level meetings and spectacular images, which contrasted with his real influence over the country where he is —according to our Constitution and over 50 countries— the caretaker president. 

The international reaction to the chavista assault on the AN was clear and swift, compared to standard diplomatic times. After a succession of statements by governments who recognize Guaidó as caretaker president, on January 17th the European Parliament approved a resolution (471 votes in favor, 101 against and 103 abstentions) insisting that, in the eyes of Europe, Guaidó is the leader of the National Assembly and that the operation to swear in Luis Parra was a “legislative coup”. The resolution also demanded more sanctions. Spanish Eurodeputy Jordi Cañas, from Ciudadanos, who drafted the resolution, says over the phone from Madrid that “we have to go beyond that if we want the EU to lead this and EU high representative Josep Borrell must show initiative, and protect our Venezuelan friends. The regime has to know we’re behind this.” Cañas admits that even though sanctions are an instrument for pressure, they don’t topple governments and tend to put a lot of strain on regular people. “What’s their effectiveness? It’s a profound debate. I’m not naive, and I know it’s hard, but I see an opportunity in persecuting people who are with the regime, their families and middlemen, it prevents them from benefiting with impunity. Even though the regime still controls the state, they have to know democracy is coming, the easy or the hard way, and I think it’s close, because the National Assembly represents a democratic legitimacy that in Cuba, for example, doesn’t exist.” 

Sanctions are still there and now Europe was raising its tone.

What seemed to be an attack on the AN then was starting to turn counterproductive for the regime. The Russians still didn’t get what they needed for their oil contracts, sanctions are still there and now Europe was raising its tone. It was a good climate for Guaidó to use in his favor the support he didn’t have at home, where his popularity had been slowly turning into resentment and frustration. 

The ‘World Threat’ Tour 

When it was confirmed that Guaidó was in Colombia again, on January 19th, the mere fact was highlighting two of the most confusing aspects of his caretaker presidency: the regime forbids him to leave the country, yet it also ignores its own prohibition. Because if they really wanted to stop him from leaving the country, they wouldn’t allow him to cross a border so well protected by regular and irregular armed groups aligned with the regime—the speaker of the National Assembly and, again, caretaker president had to resort to parallel and secretive roads to move within our territory and reach Colombia. 

These details were soon overshadowed by the narrative assumed by Guaidó during his Colombia trip—after he was received with state honors in the Nariño Palace: there are international terrorist organizations in Venezuela —Colombian FARC and ELN guerrillas, and probably Iran-backed Hezbollah— and the world must do something about it. He stood beside U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the hemisphere’s summit against terrorism in Bogotá, talking about more actions by the U.S. against Maduro’s regime, two weeks after Qaseen Soleimani was killed in Iraq by an American missile. 

From here on, this new threat from the U.S. to the Venezuelan dictatorship would pop up in certain instances and places in the coming days of a tour that was being planned as it developed—which makes its achievements more meaningful and also explains its mistakes. In the more conciliatory Europe, where unlike Bogota they don’t feel the effects of Maduro protecting irregular Colombian groups, Guaidó had to talk about sanctions and cooperation required to rebuild democracy. Days of success: meeting with Boris Johnson on January 21st in London, with the EU on the 22nd, with Angela Merkel and other leaders in Davos on the 23rd and 24th, and with  Emmanuel Macron on the 24th at the Elysée Palace.

And on January 25th, another sort of special episode began: Spain. Plenty has been written about the mishap of the Transport Minister’s meeting at the Barajas airport with the regime’s vice president Delcy Rodríguez, who’s forbidden from stepping into Europe because of EU sanctions, and about the Spanish president’s refusal to meet with Guaidó. Beyond anecdotes, truth is that things were more complicated because of the Unidas Podemos factor, whose proximity to Chávez introduced the Venezuelan topic in Spain’s polarized politics years ago. Now UP is part of the governing coalition with the same PSOE that recognized Guaidó as caretaker president. That photo with the diaspora at Plaza Sol was very important to Guaidó’s cause, under helicopter surveillance and a more skeptical audience than we saw on social media. But in order to truly understand what the recognition as president of someone who can’t exercise power means to the international community, it’s best to look closely at who had pictures taken with Guaidó, who didn’t, and how Delcygate has been discussed. 

The sensible thing is to see these gestures more as part of the competition for power in Spain than as the expressions of a deep commitment to the democratic cause.

It was the Spanish opposition—Partido Popular, Ciudadanos, and far-right Vox—that rushed to welcome Guaidó and then blamed the Spanish government for how the whole situation was handled. The sensible thing is to see these gestures more as part of the competition for power in Spain than as the expressions of a deep commitment to the democratic cause. And when it comes to how Sánchez’s administration behaved, we shouldn’t just consider UP’s presence in the government (that was so hard to achieve), but its actual management throughout this year of the Venezuelan case, which includes protecting Leopoldo López since April 30th in the diplomatic residence in Caracas, and the details the Foreign Minister gave to El País.

The tensions caused by the Venezuelan topic in Spain were further evidenced when compared to the next stop in the tour, Canada. Guaidó spoke in a press conference with the new Foreign Relations minister and met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and vice-minister Christya Freeland, one of the Lima Group creators when she was Foreign Minister. The speech still kept the conciliatory, free-election tone. It was the calm before the storm. 

Bipartisan Standing Ovation 

The first few days in the U.S. were shrouded with tense silence about the potential meeting between Donald Trump and Guaidó. The caretaker president had private meetings and called for his first and only reunion with the numerous Florida diaspora on February 2nd, a couple of days after his arrival, in a conference room near the airport (which made some people think about a surprise appearance by Trump). The meeting, which wasn’t in any way a massive event and didn’t include Trump, was at least balanced. Members of both parties attended as guests and offered words of encouragement and support for the caretaker president. Various analysts juggled to explain Trump’s absence or why the visit to the U.S. was positive at all. 

It was all cleared when Republican Senator Rick Scott (who attended Guaidó’s event in Miami) confirmed Guaidó’s invitation to Congress and his presence at president Trump’s upcoming State of the Union Address. 

Despite how it’s packed with theatrics and hardcore demonstrations of populism, what happened in the Congress during SOTU moved towards the territory where Trump is truly comfortable: reality TV. There was drama between Trump and Nancy Pelosi when he refused to shake her hand and when she tore his speech while the cameras were still rolling; there were awards and awards; a reunion between a military officer and his family; and finally, the surprise guest: Juan Guaidó, who got the only bipartisan standing ovation of the night. 

Up until that moment, the trip to the land of Mickey Mantle and Bruce Springsteen had yielded only the confirmation that Venezuela was a political cause for both Democrats and Republicans, which was an already different treatment from the one Guaidó received in Spain.

Guaidó was received at the White House with state honors, took the long-awaited photo with Trump, and had the proper presidential meeting.

The following day, the same date when Trump was acquitted by the Senate in the impeachment trial, Guaidó was received at the White House with state honors, took the long-awaited photo with Trump, and had the proper presidential meeting. According to the White House, Guaidó’s appearance in the State of the Union Address (and the following private meeting) were planned from the beginning. In statements by officials from the Trump administration, they jokingly reported how fun it was to see the faces of the press and analysts, after they speculated on whether there’d be a meeting or not. On the contrary, this kind of statement makes it feel like it was all improvised, the same aftertaste as the rest of the tour, after the rumors of Guaidó going to Brazil and Panama. Of course, more unpleasant was the reception he got at Venezuela’s international airport, with missile launchers, injured journalists, and an angry regime who attacked Guaidó and his wife. In the afternoon, the caretaker president spoke from Bolívar Sq. in Chacao, and said that a new stage begins; pressure and international measures against the regime will intensify, “no matter how controversial they are.” 

Now What? 

It’s worth mentioning, this far into the story, how atypical Juan Guaidó’s oath of office as caretaker president was.

After the Constitutional disruption of the illegal presidential election of May 2018, the only way to re-approach legality was to move as close to the Constitution as possible. That’s what the AN did with the interpretation of Article 233 on an absolute presidential vacancy, applied by analogy because there was no exact norm regulating this particular situation. According to the article, while a new election can be organized, “the Speaker of the National Assembly will be in charge of the Presidency.” That’s where the term “caretaker president” comes from. 

After that, the AN approved the Transition Statutes to regulate this process, which didn’t exist. That’s where they established that if the presidential election couldn’t be held 30 days after the “end of usurpation,” the AN would swear in the caretaker president as a provisional president for the required period of time. 

This never happened, because the usurpation never ended. While the actual presidency remains in a grey area, Guaidó is undoubtedly the caretaker president, not provisional or “interim” president (because there’s no such thing). 

Understanding what this means, the importance of a foreign government recognizing a president who doesn’t have control over the territory has many diplomatic and logistical consequences, unprecedented in the region. It tests Guaidó and his main diplomats Julio Borges and Carlos Vecchio’s ability to push for more sanctions and more aggressive actions against the regime and its allies, and the margin for action each country has according to their position in Venezuela and their internal political equation. The interests of the governments supporting Guaidó are a fundamental factor.  

Is it all about Russia’s geopolitical game in the hemisphere? Well, of course. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia, however, has drastically changed in the last couple of years. There are tensions, but let’s just say that the Cold War is handled on a more corporate level. Trump has a history of acting in favor of some of Maduro’s allies—especially Russia, but the Venezuelan topic has the potential to become one of the talking points for his reelection campaign. Especially if by the end of the year, socialist Bernie Sanders ends up being his opposing candidate. Then it’s up to Trump to tread the fine line between using sanctions and giving enough room to Russia so it doesn’t lose. 

On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that Putin has raised the stakes. Russia’s involvement in the Venezuelan oil industry goes beyond unofficial concessions for oil exploitation. As our Political Risk Report sources have explained, Maduro’s government has been slowly handing over Pdvsa operations to Rosneft and other corporate allies of the regime. This happens as Russian Foreign Minister Serguéi Lavrov offered more support to develop Venezuela’s military capabilities during his recent visit to Caracas—right after Trump’s last public display of support for Guaidó. 

How much pressure is Europe willing to apply, when Europe itself is a difficult conglomerate of governments and oppositions where unanimity is far less likely, and it’s impossible to conjunctly make dramatic decisions over a case that doesn’t even affect it directly? Three out of 28 countries of the European Union still don’t support Guaidó: Italy, Slovakia, and Cyprus. To different degrees, all these European governments are exposed to internal pressure regarding Venezuela, American, Russian, and Chinese influence and strategic questions that define their priorities. What’s more important, rebuilding the Venezuelan economy to stop the exploding migration or ending the dictatorship? What’s more dangerous for them, Venezuela with Maduro or Venezuela without him? 

Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the emotional effect of the tour will dilute in mere hours and chavismo must already be thinking about how to accelerate that process. People don’t want to lift a finger: events abroad follow a different logic and there’s no reason why they’d cause a domino effect in Venezuela. In December, many said that Guaidó’s popularity had deflated and we could declare his strategy had failed. They weren’t wrong; Guaidó was perceived as isolated from dynamics within the country, where his hands were tied. His reelection as Speaker and the attempts by the regime to stop it gave him political momentum, and even when it wasn’t enough to provoke street demonstrations, it helped him return to the front pages of international media, and forced other governments to talk about Venezuela. 

There must be something in Guaidó’s suitcase that makes this tour relevant for the country and not just for his individual position.

It’s time to ask what kind of sanctions are coming and if they’ll have an impact on the regime because, so far, they haven’t been enough to fracture it. There must be something in Guaidó’s suitcase that makes this tour relevant for the country and not just for his individual position before the world and his internal adversaries. The final question: will this tour help produce the final boost that Guaidó seems to be announcing? Is it possible that a transition towards true democracy in Venezuela will begin in 2020? 

It seems like Juan Guaidó is doing everything he can to be the hero of this story. But for now, he’s the face of one more let down which could also be the worst, most definitive of all.