The Washington Post published off-the-record remarks on Tuesday by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which he laments the fractured state of Venezuela’s opposition to dictator Nicolás Maduro, quipping that “forty-plus people” think they are the rightful heirs to the presidency.
The Post claimed to have obtained audio of a “closed-door meeting in New York” in which Pompeo nonetheless reiterated that the Trump administration is supporting the fight against Maduro and working to play a constructive, unifying role in Venezuela. There was no indication in the text that Pompeo expected the administration to step back from the challenge, instead only acknowledgment of the difficulty of the challenge.
National polls show that the Venezuelan people almost unanimously agree that Maduro is an illegitimate dictator, that Cuba and Russia have colonized their country, and that only a foreign military intervention will succeed in removing Maduro. The fragmentation exists at the level of the elites, many of them socialists themselves, who are vying to take power in the aftermath of the chavista regime.
President Juan Guaidó, who the National Assembly swore into office at the end of Maduro’s last term, is a founding member of the Popular Will party, a full member of the Socialist International. Members of the opposition who cite socialism, and not Maduro or Chávez personally, as the reason for the nation’s collapse view the presence of Popular Will and other socialist parties in the coalition with skepticism.
“Our conundrum, which is to keep the opposition united, has proven devilishly difficult,” Pompeo said in the recording. “The moment Maduro leaves, everybody’s going to raise their hands and [say], ‘Take me, I’m the next president of Venezuela.’ It would be forty-plus people who believe they’re the rightful heir to Maduro.”
“We were trying to support various religious … institutions to get the opposition to come together,” he added. The Venezuelan Catholic Church has been a vocal force against the Maduro regime for years, becoming the target of violent attacks. Clergymen have been forced to allow socialist gangs to take over their churches and give speeches praising Maduro during Mass. Maduro’s regime has used tear gas to attack the elderly faithful in churches where the clergy has condemned the regime.
Pompeo also remarks on what has become a commonly spread rumor about Maduro – that he no longer trusts any Venezuelan official or member of the military.
“You should know, [Maduro] is mostly surrounded by Cubans,” Pompeo said. “He doesn’t trust Venezuelans a lick. I don’t blame him. He shouldn’t. They were all plotting against him. Sadly, they were all plotting for themselves.”
Cuba has deployed tens of thousands of political, military, and intelligence agents to Venezuela to build a pervasion repression apparatus, helping Maduro imprison, torture, and kill political dissidents. The Trump administration has increased sanctions on Cuba in an attempt to limit the resources it has to control Venezuela.
The Washington Post concludes that Pompeo’s remarks “represent a sharp departure” from the Trump administration’s assertions that the nation is united against Maduro behind Guaidó. Yet it is both true that the Venezuelan people are divided and the political leaders who typically control the spotlight against Maduro are vying for power in a zero-sum game.
A nationwide survey by the Venezuelan polling firm Meganalisis found nearly 90 percent agreement among Venezuelans on wanting Maduro removed, support for a foreign military intervention, the belief that Maduro cannot be removed without a military intervention, the belief that Cuba and Russia have colonized Venezuela, and opposition to a dialogue between opposition leaders and the Maduro regime. The lowest percentages were for opposition to dialogue (88 percent oppose) and the question, “Who is the president of Venezuela?” Only 50 percent said Guaidó; 4.2 percent said Maduro, and the majority of the rest did not know.
The tepid support for Guaidó compared to the near-unanimous call for an end to the Maduro regime reflects the Venezuelan people’s demand for an end to socialism, which many in the opposition do not believe in. Popular Will, the party of Guaidó and presidential hopeful Leopoldo López, is a Socialist International party that proposes policies such as a government “right” to food and shelter and universal health care. Guaidó and the socialist opposition have considered offering Maduro amnesty for his crimes against humanity and chavistas a role in the opposition, triggering widespread outrage.
López, who many consider a top candidate to succeed Maduro, is also a divisive figure. A descendant of founding father Simón Bolívar with an Ivy League pedigree, López comes from a social class so elite that a New York Times profile last year revealed his family had enough to buy him a birthday cake and share with his guards while he was under house arrest. More than three-fourths of Venezuelans eat two meals or less a day.
The Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), a coalition of parties in the National Assembly that includes major socialist anti-Maduro leaders, has also disappointed Venezuelans. The MUD led attempts to negotiate with the regime on multiple occasions between 2014-2018, all of which failed and allowed Maduro to regroup politically and imprison and kill effective dissidents. López’s party was among those in the MUD, as was Henry Ramos Allup, a vice president of the Socialist International who called for the opposition to participate in Maduro’s rigged elections.
Former loyalists to late dictator Hugo Chávez – many with questionable human rights records themselves, also now claim to be part of the opposition. The only “opposition” candidate Maduro allowed to run against him in the elections last year was Henri Falcón, an avowed socialist who argued that Maduro had perverted the Bolivarian Revolution.
Even MUD voices who are not openly socialist have failed to gain traction. Henrique Capriles Radonski, a former presidential candidate who lost in rigged elections against both Chávez and Maduro, has largely been marginalized following revelations tying him to the continent-wide Odebrecht corruption scandal. Capriles has left the MUD, but former chavistas like Luisa Ortega Díaz, the attorney general responsible for imprisoning Leopoldo López, has enjoyed the MUD organizing protests in her name.
The few members of the opposition leadership who renounce socialism struggle to compete with the more powerful MUD coalition. Former legislator María Corina Machado, who has suffered public beatings and tear gas attacks for calling for an end to socialism, has repeatedly insisted in speeches that socialism is the problem, not any particular socialist leader. She is a former presidential candidate but has not enjoyed the full support for the socialist opposition the way that López and Guaidó has, though she has urged Venezuelans to unite for Guaidó. In addition to her party, Vente Venezuela, the country boasts the recently created opposition group Rumbo Libertad, which has branded itself the only truly conservative alternative in the country and openly calls for an American military intervention and criticizes Guaidó’s attempts at dialogue and flirtation with amnesty for human rights violators.