CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition has selected an all-female team of mostly unknown exiled former lawmakers to replace the beleaguered Juan Guaidó as the face of its faltering efforts to remove socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
Last week, politicians who were elected to the National Assembly in 2015 voted to oust Guaidó from his role as “interim president,” a title he claimed as head of what was widely considered the South American nation's last democratically elected institution.
On Thursday, those same former lawmakers chose Dinorah Figuera as his replacement. She'll be joined by two other backbenchers — Marianela Fernández and Auristela Vásquez — in a triumvirate leadership of a legislature that operates as a symbolic shadow to Maduro’s rubber-stamping National Assembly, which convened Thursday in its neoclassical chambers.
The women represent three different parties that had been pushing for Guaidó's removal as a way to reconnect with disillusioned voters ahead of next year's presidential elections. But it remains to see how, living outside Venezuela, they will manage to mobilize their compatriots to counter Maduro's increasingly firm grip on power.
Figuera, a medical surgeon who has been living in Spain, appealed for unity in her first address to fellow Maduro opponents. She also promised to work to shield the OPEC nation's extensive oil assets abroad, which include Houston-based refinery Citgo, from seizure by a long list of creditors stiffed by Maduro's profligate spending over the years.
“I have the conviction that this parliament will raise the flag of faith, hope and justice,” Figuera said in the session, which was held virtually, in a Zoom meeting, because so many opposition politicians like her have fled Venezuela in recent years.
In January 2019, the National Assembly, then controlled by the opposition, voted to stop recognizing Maduro as president after several top opponents were barred from running against him. It then appointed Guaidó, who was one of the few leaders in his Popular Will party to avoid arrest or exile, to be the nation’s “interim president,” in accordance with the order of succession outlined in Venezuela’s constitution.
Guaidó was quickly recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States and dozens of governments in Europe and Latin America.
But his interim government was unable to win over the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, and the opposition-controlled National Assembly's five-year mandate officially ended at the close of 2020. With leftist leaders winning elections across Latin America in recent years, the U.S.-led international coalition to pressure Maduro has also frayed. Colombia, Brazil and Spain are among the countries that recently re-established diplomatic ties.
Guaidó, in Thursday’s meeting, thanked his many supporters, both domestic and foreign, in what was something akin to a farewell address. Standing at a lectern emblazoned with the Venezuelan presidential seal, the 39-year-old said he would remain in Venezuela — despite calls for his arrest from among Maduro's more radical supporters — and urged his successors to rebuild the unity needed to unseat Maduro.
“We can’t generate a power vacuum that only benefits the de-facto dictator,” he said.
Guaidó's departure from the political scene may only be temporary however.
Although no longer the harbinger of hope he was when he rose from obscurity amid a wave of street protests to challenge Maduro's rule, he remains a popular figure in the otherwise rudderless opposition, admired for his bravery and commitment to the cause of Venezuela's democracy if not for always delivering results. He's expected to be among those who will compete in opposition primaries this year to see who runs against Maduro in 2024.
Meanwhile, Maduro's supporters seemed to be relishing the opposition's squabbles.
At Thursday's session inaugurating the legislative year, loyalist lawmakers re-elected Jorge Rodriguez to lead the National Assembly. Rodriguez, a close Maduro ally, accused the opposition of causing imposing undue “pain, suffering and aggression against the Venezuelan people” by supporting U.S. sanctions on the country.
Socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello also took a shot at the rival legislature, saying: “They love to live in a fantasy, they love to live dreaming.”
The Biden administration has largely tried to avoid wading into the opposition's feuding while continuing to pressure Maduro to make meaningful concessions to the opposition in negotiations taking place in Mexico that would pave the way for free and fair elections.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that the U.S. stands ready to work with any individual, or collective body, chosen by the 2015 National Assembly to represent it.
“Our approach to Nicolás Maduro has not changed,” Price said Tuesday. “He is illegitimate. We support the 2015 National Assembly as the only remaining vestige of democracy in Venezuela.”
Goodman reported from Miami.