The Interim Government of Venezuela Was Dissolved by Its Own Promoters
Venezuela begins 2023 suddenly devoid of an interim president, and the regime of Nicolás Maduro did not even lift a finger. After much anticipation, three of the four major parties in Venezuela’s National Assembly voted to dissolve the interim government structure that saw Juan Guaidó assume the position of the nation’s interim president in January 2019. In its stead, the National Assembly will form several special committees to oversee aspects of governance previously handled by the interim government, led by three exiled figures in Spain and the United States.
While this move had been rumored for several months, it still comes as a blow to the opposition’s chances of seeing democracy restored in the country anytime soon—to say nothing of its potential to provide further legitimacy to Maduro’s dictatorship. Erected in the wake of Maduro’s fraudulent 2018 presidential election, the interim government was a sovereign Venezuelan, constitutional decision to fill the vacuum of power in a country considered to have no legitimately elected president. That the decision was constitutional according to Hugo Chávez’s own constitution (Article 233) gave the decision even more gravitas.
In 2019, the interim government appeared to be riding high. The majority of Venezuelans supported it. At its peak, Guaidó commanded over 60 percent support. The United States moved to recognize Guaidó as interim president, a move that was quickly followed by nearly 60 countries, including many in Latin America, earning him accredited ambassadors throughout the world and in critical international organizations. The Maduro regime was left in splendid isolation as a torrent of sanctions and indictments came down against high-level officials involved in drug trafficking and crimes against humanity. Further, the interim government maintained a deep reservoir of resources, stemming from sanctioned and frozen assets and central bank funds abroad, such as the billions in gold bullion stored in the Central Bank of England.
The bottom line: it was a golden era for the Venezuelan opposition. Guaidó—a refreshing voice in a political opposition generally considered too stodgy to consider new voices—appeared to offer a genuine bridge from Venezuela’s authoritarian repression to some kind of democratic restoration. Coupled with a multilateral, international sanctions campaign, the interim government appeared poised to make serious demands for electoral concessions that could change Chavismo’s trajectory and reduce its chances of ruling Venezuela indefinitely by force. At its height, Guaidó commanded a vast opposition movement, with protests in Caracas and other cities attracting hundreds of thousands of people.
The invigorating days of 2019 eventually gave way to 2020, which saw the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and a rapidly changing panorama for the opposition. Under the guise of public health measures, the Maduro regime clamped down on Venezuelan society. The regime strengthened its grip on power and Venezuela’s protest movements entered an enervating phase. In short, the possibility of democratic transition became less auspicious. 2021 saw the extension of Guaidó’s mandate, while 2022 saw another extension but under an amended arrangement. Limited mobilization took place in both years due to the pandemic, but Guaidó also found himself unable to replicate the 2019 protest movements as Venezuela’s humanitarian outlook worsened and people continued to flee the country. From 2015 to 2022, an eye-popping 7.1 million Venezuelans left the country.
Hindsight is always 20/20. Many are now declaring the interim government a failure because it could not initiate a democratic transition, conveniently eliding the constitutionality of Guaidó’s position. Some have extended that criticism to the Trump administration’s policy and its “maximum pressure” campaign against the Maduro regime that coincided with Guaidó’s interim presidency. Others have suggested that the Biden administration should have been firmer in its backing of Guaidó as regional and global developments weakened his position. But now is not the time to politicize the moment. After all, a transition to democracy in Venezuela has befuddled Republican and Democrat administrations alike. An even and balanced account of the interim government, its failures and its successes, is in dire order.
Opposition Mistakes and Failures
After 24 years of Chavismo, opposition leaders have not been able to set aside egos and personal interests to unify under a strategy to return to democracy. The fact that opposition leaders themselves dissolved the interim government demonstrates that personal interests are still more important than the collective. This dynamic could be on display again when 2024 elections present the opposition a chance to unify behind a single candidate or run multiple candidates.
Too many opposition members have been co-opted by the Maduro regime, creating what we know today as the “false opposition.” Average Venezuelans have trouble distinguishing between those who are on the side of democracy and those who might be playing both sides. Perhaps the best example of this occurred when some members of the opposition began calling for the dissolution of the interim government more than a year before it transpired, including its commissioner of foreign affairs.
The past two years of opposition participation in negotiations have imposed significant costs. To coax Maduro to the table, the opposition signed a memorandum of understanding that saw Maduro impose conditions on the talks. The most salient of these was the formal recognition of Maduro and the institutions of his government, including the regime-controlled National Assembly elected in December 2020 after an opposition boycott of elections. After multiple years of denying Maduro’s legitimacy, the opposition granted recognition—the most coveted of concessions—to get Maduro to the table, undermining Guaidó’s claim to the interim presidency. When the Venezuelan opposition signed the memorandum of understanding in August 2021, it prompted questions about the figure of the interim president himself, who did not even appear in the document. In short, the opposition (once again) laid the seeds of Guaidó’s dismissal with its desperation to get Maduro back to the table. Thus far, no major results or concessions have come from those negotiations, other than buying Maduro more time in power.
A preponderance of the interim government’s efforts went into managing its considerable assets abroad, as it fended off claims from international creditors of the regime and protected opposition politicians from the machinery of repression at home. To be sure, gaining control of international assets was a major accomplishment for the interim government; however, the way some of these assets were handled began to blur the moral distinction between the Maduro regime’s depths of corruption and the opposition’s lack of governance. A dearth of transparency and accountability lie at the heart of the scandals involving several of these assets, such as Monómeros, a fertilizer company based in Colombia.
The U.S. Government’s Role
The U.S. government is also to blame for the dissolution of the interim government. U.S. policy shifted from a frontal, high-pressure campaign by the Trump administration to a more diplomatic, sometimes fuzzy strategy under the Biden administration that focused on bringing Maduro to the negotiating table.
Objectively, the indictments and sanctions architecture constructed by the Trump administration around the Maduro regime did not manage to peel off enough high-ranking military officers. The armed forces have remained loyal to Maduro, including in April 2019, when Guaidó appeared outside a military base calling for an uprising. Further, the heavy reliance on sanctions reaffirmed for some that the Trump administration’s policy was “regime change,” eliding the fact that it released a comprehensive “Democratic Transition Framework” to guide democratization efforts.
On the other hand, the Biden administration’s secret trip to establish contact with Maduro in March 2022 in order to discuss the release of Americans detained in Venezuela and respond to the energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, caught everyone off guard (including the interim government). The net result was to reestablish direct contact between the regime and the U.S. government; but it was also a signal to some in the opposition that the U.S. government’s support was not as unwavering as previously imagined, creating an opening to accelerate the end of the interim government.
While that wedge took several months to drive the opposition apart, by September 2022, strong rumors began circulating that several factions would no longer support Guaidó and the interim government vehicle during an expected vote on its renewal in early 2023. Indeed, by October, it appeared as though Guaidó’s days were numbered.
For the Maduro regime, dissolving the interim government could not come at a better time. Two consecutive years of regional elections have swept to power left-wing governments in Latin America. This has been paired with a Biden administration willing to deconstruct the formidable sanctions architecture it inherited in exchange for dialogue for dialogue’s sake, as well as “successful” diplomatic travel by Maduro, in which he bombarded political leaders at the UN Conference of the Parties (COP27) and leveraged the highly spontaneous moments to argue the world is recognizing his legitimacy and increasingly normalizing relations. Meanwhile, three of the four major opposition parties have proven themselves unwilling to maintain a constitutional structure that stood against the Maduro regime. Instead, they chose cohabitation over the Venezuelan people’s desire for freedom.
Thus, 2023 has commenced like so many years in Venezuela’s history under Chavismo, with political divisions threatening to derail the opposition. Maduro has stepped into the void, positioning himself to normalize relations and reestablish full diplomatic ties with the United States, as he has done with Colombia already and will do with Brazil shortly.
Now that the interim government structure has been dissolved, it begs the question of the legitimacy of what will take its place—will the proposed committee structure, devoid of an identifiable figurehead, be able to effectively oversee select functions previously performed by the interim government? Members of the National Assembly who voted to dissolve the interim government accused it of corruption and financial impropriety. If that is the case, who will handle the funds under the new committee mechanism? Will there be different, allegedly more scrupulous individuals overseeing the considerable assets maintained abroad? Who can the Venezuelan people trust if not Guaidó?
An Uncertain Future
The future brings more questions than answers for U.S. policy toward Venezuela, too. Most important is the question of recognition. Will the U.S. government recognize Maduro as president? Thus far, the Biden administration has said that it will not involve itself in internal matters of the Venezuelan opposition, but neither is it likely to move policy to recognize Maduro. Biden administration officials insist on the option of “snapback” sanctions, but this will be hard to initiate as Venezuelan crude is back on international markets.
Thus, the Biden administration will be entering a gray zone. There is likely no precedent for recognizing an amorphous tripartite committee structure as an opposition head of government. A spokesperson from the State Department recently said that the Biden administration “continues to recognize the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly,” but that does little to clarify questions about who the Biden administration considers to be in charge. All mentions of Guaidó, even in the past tense, were dropped from the State Department’s statement.
The challenge of defining an approach that does not recognize Maduro is immediate. Last year, the U.S. government warned that the loss of a clear opposition leader could jeopardize the executive order preventing shares of Citgo Petroleum from being auctioned to pay claims by Venezuela’s creditors. Nowhere is this truer than in the United Kingdom, where a fiercely litigated court case has reached the Supreme Court for control over Venezuela’s gold bullion in the Bank of England. At multiple phases, the high court in the United Kingdom has ruled in the opposition’s favor—always on the basis that the country recognizes Guaidó’s interim presidency. Dissolving the interim government has made the legal defense of Venezuela’s assets abroad a more onerous task by virtue of no longer counting an identifiable leader as head of government.
While the opposition’s ambassador will no longer retain his post, it is critical to maintain visas for interim government officials currently in the United States and inquire whether it is possible to keep its representatives at institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank. Depending on the future of the Maduro regime and its level of repression, the opposition may have to reconstitute itself outside of the country. At the very least, opposition officials outside of Venezuela run a severe risk if forced to return to the country. The United States should also decide what happens to Venezuelan property in the United States beyond the frozen assets, such as the embassy and consulate buildings in Washington, D.C. and across the country, where former ambassador Carlos Vecchio said some administrative and diplomatic work will shutter.
There is also a serious question as to what happens to Guaidó himself. Will the Biden administration find a way to send a message to the Maduro regime that the United States is serious about ensuring his safety? Does the Maduro regime interpret the lack of constitutional status for Guaidó as a green light to arrest and potentially torture him? Previously, Trump administration policy insisted on Guaidó’s safety, threatening severe consequences if the Maduro regime arrested him. Of course, these consequences were unclear, but there was just enough “strategic ambiguity” in U.S. policy to keep Maduro from wanting to find out. Without those U.S. demands, Maduro has already ordered the arrest of the new national assembly leaders in exile.
For the opposition to be successfully moving toward elections, it will have to coalesce around a single candidate without succumbing to Maduro’s incessant attempts to divide and co-opt it. Elections in 2024—or earlier, if Maduro amends the electoral timetable to his advantage as he did in 2018—will require levels of mobilization unseen since the heady days of 2019.
All of this could be at risk if, somehow, the votes of certain parties to dissolve the interim government were made in exchange for vague (and secret) promises by the Maduro regime to permit them to compete in the 2024 elections. The Maduro regime’s incessant attempts to co-opt the opposition mean this scenario cannot be ruled out. There is also the need for the opposition to balance the desire for a seasoned candidate and to find a new face who can regenerate its aging leadership. New leadership can only be legitimate if the 7.1 million people outside of the country are given the opportunity to participate in the process by voting.
Lastly, the U.S. government may find itself back in a situation where there is little incentive for the Maduro regime to return to recently restarted negotiations with the opposition’s representatives in Mexico City. Regional conditions have shifted, the opposition is fractured, and Chevron has resumed operations in Venezuela’s oil fields—all powerful incentives for Maduro to delay any return to dialogue.
In many ways, the United States is back to square one on Venezuela policy. It is difficult to envisage long-term rather than tactical strategy at the moment, and there is no longer a viable Venezuelan opposition leader to pave the way forward. In short, a mix of international developments, shifts in U.S. policy, and the opposition’s own failures has provided Maduro the ingredients for his own success: more time in power and a dejected electorate that has little faith politicians can deliver change for the Venezuelan people.
Ryan C. Berg is director of the Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Alexandra Winkler is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Americas Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2023 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.