More than two years after the opposition leader proclaimed himself the country's 'legitimate' leader, the man he was hoping to oust — President Nicolas Maduro — is still very much in charge.
It's reasonable, here in Latin America, that left-wing politicians — as a way to establish their democratic credibility — would be asked to distance themselves from Venezuela's dictatorial regime. It's notable, here in Peru, both those who have and have not done so.
But taking a critical stand against the regime of Nicolás Maduro shouldn't automatically entail recognizing the liberal opposition chief Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela — for two reasons.
The first was offered by Luis Lacalle, when he assumed the presidency of Uruguay a little over a year ago. Lacalle, a conservative, didn't hesitate to call Maduro a dictator. And yet, he continues to recognize him as president. As Lacalle stated, "We recognize Juan Guaidó as president of the National Assembly, which is the country's legitimate organ. But we cannot take the step of recognizing him as president when Maduro is effectively exercising as president."
Calling Maduro a dictator does not legally turn Guaidó into president.
The second reason why calling Maduro a dictator does not legally turn Guaidó into president is that the latter is longer covered by the source of legitimacy he invoked when he first declared himself the constitutional, acting president.
Guaidó"s claim to the presidency is pursuant to Article 233 of the 1999 Constitution (promulgated by Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez). The article stipulates that the president may be removed from office in case of "total absence," with instances including "abandonment of office as declared by the National Assembly." That is precisely what happened when Guaidó was speaker of the Assembly. And in such a case, according to Article 233, presidential powers then go to the Assembly head — to Guaidó himself.
That, in a nutshell, is the argument followed by those states that recognize him as president. But even if Guaidó did take over as president in constitutional terms, the continuity of his mandate is to be questioned — again, for two reasons.
Juan Guaido speaking in Caracas on March 3 —Photo: Jesus Vargas/dpa/ZUMA
The first is that the same Article 233 stated that if the president's total absence occurred in the first four years of his or her constitutional term, general elections were to be held within the next 30 days. Guaidó was sworn into office on Jan. 23, 2019, which means there should have been a presidential election in February.
More than two years later, he continues to say that he will call elections as soon as Maduro's "usurpation ends." But that is not what the constitution states. It is also an implicit recognition that it's Maduro, not himself, who still exercises presidential powers (as Lacalle says).
The second reason for questioning Guaidó"s claim to power is that, as noted, he assumed the presidency because he was speaker of parliament. But the mandate of the National Assembly elected in 2015, which he presided, ended on Jan. 5, 2021. That's why EU declarations have since then ceased to refer to him as "interim president."
For such reasons, even the Trump administration, which recognized Guaidó as president, proposed last year what it called a Democratic Transition Framework. The document, published in March 2020, asked both leaders to step aside and allow a third person to head a transitional presidency and call elections. The EU-led International Contact Group has furthermore recognized Maduro as an interlocutor in talks on a transition to democracy.
All of this follows years in which the main opposition leaders and the United States sought in vain to topple the regime. What we're seeing, in other words, is a shift toward political realism, which has taken precedence, it now appears, over ideological convictions.