VALENCIA, Spain (AP) — Like many of the 7 million Venezuelans who have abandoned their homeland in recent years, when Dinorah Figuera left behind her family and medical career in 2018 she was forced to accept meals from local charities and hop from one low-cost shared apartment to another upon arriving in Spain.
Today, she still hustles to make ends meet working as an in-home caregiver for an elderly diabetic woman in the port city of Valencia.
But now the 61-year-old has an even weightier responsibility — leading Venezuela's opposition from exile in the seemingly impossible fight to unseat President Nicolás Maduro as the new head of the National Assembly elected in 2015.
Figuera's selection this month as part of an all-female leadership team of former backbench lawmakers was initially celebrated as an overdue acknowledgement of the key grassroots role women like her have played in the two-decade fight against Venezuela's socialist administration.
It could all easily backfire. To most observers, Figuera only managed to steal some of the spotlight from the men who dominate the U.S.-backed opposition because of an ugly internal fracas that has left it discredited in the eyes of millions of Venezuelans doing what they can to avoid joining the country's mass exodus.
“This could end up being a double-edged knife if we don't do things right,” Figuera said in an interview Thursday in a park as she interrupted a busy schedule of phone calls with opposition politicians seeking her out for the first time. “But we're going to take that risk, with all of the possible consequences, because we Venezuelans deserve a change.”
Figuera emerged as an unlikely power broker after her party this month led a putsch to oust the beleaguered Juan Guaidó from his role as “interim president.” It was a title he claimed in 2019 as head of the National Assembly when several top opponents were barred from running against Maduro in the presidential election. Even though the assembly's five-year mandate ended at the end of 2020, it still functions as a symbolic shadow to Maduro's rubber-stamping legislature and is widely considered Venezuela's last democratically elected institution.
The same opposition stalwarts chose Figuera to replace Guaidó in a parliamentary session held over Zoom because so many had fled Venezuela in recent years. But in a twist, the so-called interim government was officially disbanded, thus downgrading Figuera's sway.
While Figuera’s plight is similar to many Venezuelan migrants, the circumstances of her departure are unique.
In October 2018, her close friend Fernando Albán — godfather to her daughter — died after falling from the 10th floor of a building belonging to Maduro’s intelligence services. It was ruled a suicide by Maduro’s government. Figuera had to quickly flee when she began to receive threats for denouncing that her fellow activist had been killed in custody.
“I didn’t have time to say goodbye to my family,” she recalled.
In Spain, she was granted asylum. A single mother, she was separated from her daughter for a while and wept from abroad as her mother and two siblings passed away — her training as a surgeon and epidemiologist useless from thousands of miles (kilometers) away. Today, more settled, she sends money to loved ones back home from a job for which she is vastly overqualified but is grateful to have.
“I feel like I'm part of the family,” Figuera said of her Spanish employer, the daughter of the elderly woman under her care. “She's always saying that nobody believes that the woman who cares for my mother is the president of the Venezuelan national assembly.”
Although not well known in Venezuela, Figuera has been active in politics since a teenager, with a focus on helping neighbors in the working class Caracas neighborhood where she grew up. After taking a two-year recess to undergo treatment for leukemia, she was elected to congress in 2010 and again in 2015 for the Justice First party.
Her main task as head of the would-be legislature is re-connecting with disillusioned voters and uniting the opposition a year out from elections. It's a steep challenge with so many activists like herself in exile and Maduro's near total control of all institutions. Hours after her appointment, Maduro's attorney general announced orders for her arrest.
Figuera believes the opposition needs a more modest stance to refocus Venezuelans’ attention on the Maduro government's corruption, human rights abuses and mismanagement of a once thriving oil economy battered today by high inflation, gaping poverty and widespread shortages.
“We’re at a crossroads where rectifications are needed,” she said, without providing specifics. “And that means abandoning some positions that have weakened us.”
But the opposition’s own history of overreach, strategic missteps and battling egos are also a hazard. Guaidó and his allies consider that his removal was unconstitutional. Even some fellow female politicians see her appointment as a desperate attempt to improve the opposition's worn down image.
“I have nothing to celebrate as a woman," said Adriana Pichardo, a former lawmaker from Guaidó's party.
To be sure, Venezuela’s politics have long been defined by a heavy dose of machismo — of which the opposition isn’t immune. All of Guaidó's commissioners, which functioned as shadow ministers, were men and only two of nine members of the opposition team negotiating in Mexico with Maduro's government are women.
“Women are where the power isn’t,” said Natalia Brandler, director of CAUCE, a Caracas-based non-profit group that trains female political leaders.
The dearth of opportunities has drawn grumblings from the U.S. and other Western governments that support Venezuela’s pro-democracy movement. In 2019, after Guaidó was recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the U.S. and dozens of countries, a non-profit called Independent Diplomat was quietly hired with a grant from Canada to provide mentorship and workshops with valuable foreign contacts to a group of lawmakers and activists calling itself Women for Democracy in Venezuela.
“All too often the international community pushes engagement in a tokenistic way, for example setting up parallel tracks for women on the sidelines of substantive negotiations rather than within the core negotiations as peacemakers in their own right,” said Reza Afshar, a former British diplomat who heads Independent Diplomat. “We need to shift the paradigm. Women need to play leading roles because evidence suggests it yields better results, and, as we’ve seen, men running things for hundreds of years hasn’t worked very well."
Ironically, much of the female empowerment inside the opposition is a result of policies pursued by Maduro. The congressional election in 2015 was the first in Venezuela to require gender parity to correct longstanding imbalances that led to as many as 91% of local mayors being men. Most of the slots for female candidates were in pro-government strongholds like the central state of Aragua, which Figuera represents. When the opposition won the vote by a landslide, a number of previously unknown women gained a surprise foothold.
Figuera, having been herself excluded from so many closed door meetings of male party bosses, hopes to convert her unassuming touch into a strength to help the opposition recover some of its lost credibility.
“I'm a woman from modest upbringing that has worked hard and won elections,” she said, reflecting on her unlikely ascendance. “I have the experience of resistance and I have the experience of making indeclinable decisions.”
Goodman reported from Miami. Associated Press writer Camille Rodriguez Montilla in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.