Venezuela’s parallel political universes have just got more complicated. For the past year, two men — Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó — have claimed to be the country’s legitimate president. Since 2017, the country has had two congresses: the democratically elected National Assembly and the National Constituent Assembly, which was set up that year by Mr Maduro to cement his grip on power. Now, the National Assembly has two rival presidents in Mr Guaidó and Luis Eduardo Parra, a rebel opposition legislator who claimed the role during chaotic proceedings on Sunday.
Why did Sunday’s vote matter?
Mr Guaidó’s claim to be the legitimate interim president of Venezuela was based entirely on the fact that he headed the assembly. According to the government, he now no longer does, so his claim to the presidency is more tenuous than ever. According to Mr Guaidó, he is still the president of both congress and the country.
What happens next?
It is unclear. On Tuesday, the National Assembly is due to sit. But under which president? Mr Guaidó has vowed to turn up at the assembly building with his supporters. So has Mr Parra. Much will depend on the response of the security forces. They may try to block Mr Guaidó, as they did on Sunday. They might even arrest him, although with so many journalists present that seems unlikely. If both men succeed in getting into the chamber anything could happen.
Who is Luis Eduardo Parra?
Until December, Mr Parra was a little-known legislator from the small coastal state of Yaracuy. The 41-year-old was a member of Primero Justicia, one of the main parties in Mr Guaidó’s coalition. But an investigative journalism website accused him and several other politicians of corruption. Primero Justicia opened an investigation and Mr Parra was kicked out of the party. With little to lose (and perhaps with an axe to grind) he agreed to challenge Mr Guaidó in Sunday’s vote, with the support of pro-government legislators and disgruntled members of the opposition.
What does this mean for Mr Maduro?
Mr Maduro was quick to welcome Mr Parra’s election, even though it clearly broke National Assembly rules. There was no legal quorum, no vote count and the head of the assembly — Mr Guaidó — was not present. According to Risa Grais-Targow, Latin American director at the Eurasia Group: “Maduro will probably use the duelling legislatures to increase persecution of the opposition, lure more lawmakers to his camp and move towards fresh assembly elections on his own terms.” Those elections are due to be held this year. But Sunday’s move was a gamble for Mr Maduro. It made him look like a classic Latin American dictator, shutting down a democratically elected parliament and stopping elected politicians doing their job.
And for Mr Guaidó?
In the short term, Mr Guaidó seems reinvigorated after a difficult end to 2019 in which his popularity waned and cracks opened in his coalition. The image of him scaling the railings to get into the National Assembly was potent — it suggested a man who wanted to see democracy respected. He also received the backing of 100 lawmakers in an impromptu parliamentary session on Sunday evening. In the longer term, though, he may struggle to maintain that momentum, and Mr Parra’s defection, along with those of other rebel deputies, shows his coalition is vulnerable. “Even if Guaidó preserves his international legitimacy, the regime will continue to push the opposition leader to the margins domestically,” predicted Teneo, a consultancy. “The more Guaidó is weakened, the more his leadership will be questioned internally.”
What has been the international response?
The US, the EU, the Organization of American States and the Group of Lima, a regional grouping of most big countries in the Americas, reiterated their support for Mr Guaidó and condemned the Maduro government for orchestrating Sunday’s events. Tellingly, even Mexico and Argentina, with leftist governments that might have expressed some sympathy for the Maduro regime, chastised it. Russia was almost alone in recognising Mr Parra’s election as legitimate.
Elliott Abrams, the US Special Representative for Venezuela, suggested Washington would punish Mr Maduro with more sanctions. But with US and world attention on the Middle East, those sanctions would be modest.
“This is the cost of having stirred up conflict with Iran,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University in the US. “It is absorbing the attention of the US and the EU and they will likely do as little as possible with Venezuela. This was undoubtedly part of the calculation of the Maduro government in undertaking such a brazen power grab. They saw an opportunity created by the US strike against Iran and quickly took it.”
Additional reporting by Katrina Manson in Washington