In dramatic scenes this week, Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó tried to climb into the grounds of congress over a set of spiked iron railings, only to be hauled down by police officers, his blue suit ripped from waist to shoulder.
Mr Guaidó wanted to seek re-election as president of the National Assembly, or congress — the only democratically elected institution in the country — but was blocked from entering by police and armed forces. Inside the gold-domed building, some of Mr Guaidó’s legislators traded punches with their opponents. After a chaotic vote that broke with protocol, Luis Parra was sworn in as the new head of congress, with the backing of President Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist legislators.
Two days later, supporters carried Mr Guaidó aloft through a heavy security cordon around the same building, a whitewashed 19th century gem nestled amid the drab concrete blocks of central Caracas. They pushed their way through the wooden doors, singing the national anthem as Mr Guaidó finally took his seat.
Despite the chaos and Mr Parra’s installation as leader, this week’s events have helped Mr Guaidó regain momentum, uniting Venezuela’s often fractured opposition. His popularity among Venezuelans is likely to rise in the coming weeks “and that is a very valuable asset”, predicted Luis Vicente León, the head of Datanálisis, the country’s foremost pollster. “But he must use it quickly. It’s ephemeral.”
In opposition hands since 2015, congress has been a constant thorn in the side of the president, who in 2017 set up a rival congress, packed with his supporters, to circumvent it.
Mr Guaidó has been National Assembly president for the past year and uses the post as the basis for his claim to be the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. When Mr Guaidó gathered his supporters for an impromptu vote in the cramped offices of a local newspaper earlier this week, he got the backing of 100 legislators from the 167-seat congress, suggesting that had he been able to participate, he probably would have won a fair vote.
Still Mr Maduro mocked Mr Guaidó as “an idiot jumping a fence”. The government claimed the opposition leader had deliberately avoided entering congress because he feared he would lose the vote. Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful figures in the ruling Socialist party, dismissed the drama as petty squabbling between opposition factions “fighting over an empty bottle”.
The opposition, meanwhile, said Mr Maduro had proved himself an out-and-out dictator, sending armed troops and hired thugs to stop lawmakers doing their job. “If the dictatorship had a worse face to show the world, it just showed it,” Mr Guaidó concluded.
Despite the short-term boost for Mr Guaidó, little of substance has changed. Mr Maduro remains the de facto president, the armed forces still support him, as do Russia, China and Cuba. Mr Guaidó retains the support of the US, the EU and regional bodies such as the Organisation of American States and the Lima Group, but has little real clout.
Argentina and Mexico, whose leftwing governments might have been expected to support Mr Maduro over this week’s events, chose not to. However, Argentina became the first country in the world to withdraw the diplomatic credentials of a Guaidó envoy — a result of its own shift leftwards in October’s election. The only foreign country to recognise Mr Parra’s election was Russia. Even China and Cuba remained officially silent.
“There’s been a lot of speculation that Russia has been pushing Maduro to put a puppet in charge of the National Assembly because new oil deals need to be approved by it,” said Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy organisation. Russia might be seeking “a thicker veneer of legitimacy” for its Venezuelan operations, he said.
Whether true or not, this week’s events seem to have only a limited impact on the lives of ordinary Venezuelans, who are struggling with hyperinflation and a humanitarian crisis that has forced 4.5m people to flee in recent years. “I’ve honestly lost track of what’s happening in our politics,” said Yara Marcano, one local resident. “We must be in the only country in the world with two presidents, two congresses and two heads of congress, and none of them seem capable of doing anything for us.”