US faces key test as global support for Venezuela opposition leader grows

The Trump administration is facing a critical test of its hemispheric policy as global support grows for the leader of Venezuela's National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, to be the face of opposition against strongman President Nicolás Maduro.
 
The administration has taken an active role in opposing Maduro, declaring the Venezuelan government illegitimate following his second inauguration earlier this month.
 
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But Maduro's opponents both inside and outside Venezuela have struggled to find a credible leader to coalesce around.
 
Guaidó, a 35-year-old engineer-turned-politician, seems to fit the role — and the United States will now need to decide how it deals with him.
 
As head of the opposition-led and democratically elected National Assembly, Guaidó has strong legal grounds to claim the presidency that Maduro holds.
 
Maduro was inaugurated for a second six-year term earlier this month, but his election was declared illegitimate by most international actors, save for countries like Russia, China, Cuba, Syria, Iran and Nicaragua that were dubbed "A Thugs R Us" by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.).
 
Guaidó, in contrast, has started collecting international support from democratic actors such as the Organization of American States (OAS), Brazil, Chile and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.
 
"We join the claim of the vast majority of the governments of the American hemisphere, acknowledging Juan Guaidó as the acting president of the Republic of Venezuela," said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (D) in a statement Friday, signed along with former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma. 
 
OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are publicly referring to Guaidó as Venezuela's "interim president," although Guaidó himself has yet to adopt the moniker.
 
"He's a very appealing figure of the opposition. He's emerged — he was totally unknown just two weeks ago and he has emerged as a very interesting figure. Whether he is going to be the savior of Venezuela remains to be seen," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank focused on hemispheric affairs.
 
"[Guaidó] has legitimacy on his side, he has legality on his side, but he doesn't have power. The question is how does he get power," added Shifter.
 
Guaidó's high profile — and limited power — was on full display Jan. 13, as agents with Maduro's intelligence service intercepted him on a highway and detained him for four hours.
 
Upon his release, Guaidó said he was freed because "there are people who still believe in Venezuela."
 
Venezuela's opposition is expected to hold mass protests on Tuesday, the anniversary of a coup d'etat that overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958.
 
A small group of soldiers Monday attempted an uprising against Maduro, which was quickly quelled.
 
Guaidó said the uprising shows "the generalized feelings within the Armed Forces."
 
Michael McCarthy, a Venezuela expert at American University, told The Hill the Trump administration's statements ahead of the protests could either bolster or diminish the opposition's chances of success.
 
And with essentially full agreement by all U.S. political actors on Maduro's illegitimacy, a misstep that risks empowering the regime could significantly hurt the Trump administration.
 
"Nicolás Maduro has no friends in Washington at this point," said a senior Democratic aide with knowledge of the situation.
 
"My anticipation is Guaidó is recognized in Venezuela by the opposition. Latin American and European governments also recognize him, and during that process, it is my expectation the Trump administration will recognize Guaidó as provisional president of Venezuela," added the aide.
 
Republicans see Maduro's illegitimacy on the world stage as a weakness to be exploited, and warn the consequences of letting the moment pass could be dire for the Venezuelan population.
 
"This is a regime that has blood on its hands. It's a murderous regime, it's a narco-murderous regime, and so I think we should be prepared for them to commit more and worse atrocities," said Díaz-Balart.
 
But Democrats, who agree on few issues with the administration, privately worry that the White House could overplay its hand, issuing overly restrictive sanctions or a poorly-timed presidential statement of support for Guaidó's claim, bolstering Maduro's long-standing claim that the United States is behind a plan to knock him down.
 
"Poorly conceived and poorly timed policy decisions such as oil sanctions or a state sponsor of terrorism designation run the risk of inserting friction into the bipartisan consensus that exists in Washington," said the aide.
 
And the Venezuelan opposition itself has a bad track record of maintaining unity in the face of potential success. Previous attempts at taking power from Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, ended mostly in abject failure.
 
But Chavez and Maduro always had more extensive regional support and, crucially, the legitimacy of globally recognized elections to bolster them.
 
"The track record of Chávez and Maduro in dividing the opposition has been pretty good, but we're at a different moment now and it's very hard to know what will happen," said Shifter.
 
--Updated at 7 a.m.