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Efforts To Resolve Worsening Crisis In Venezuela Are Stymied


The crisis in Venezuela is getting worse, and efforts to fix it have stalled. Norway brokered talks. They fell apart. Nicolas Maduro is still in power. And his rival, the opposition leader Juan Guaido, who's supported by the United States and more than 50 other countries, is struggling to maintain momentum. NPR's Philip Reeves was in the capital, Caracas. And he met Guaido.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: What was supposed to be a sprint has become a marathon. It's far from clear who will win.


REEVES: Remember this? This is the moment when Juan Guaido staked his claim to be Venezuela's legitimate leader...


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...By taking the president's oath of office in front of a massive crowd in Caracas. That happened more than eight months ago. Back then, many Venezuelans were confident Guaido would topple Maduro in no time at all.

LUIS VICENTE LEON: In January, 63% of Venezuelans thought that Guaido was going to kick Maduro out in less than three months. Now this number is no more than 23%.

REEVES: Luis Vicente Leon is Venezuela's leading pollster.

LEON: It means 40 percentage points less. So we are pulverizing the hopes of changes.

REEVES: You'd think Juan Guaido might worry about this. He shrugs it off.

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "What's eight months," he argues, "when you've been fighting for change nearly half your life," a reference to his years as a student activist. Guaido says opposing Venezuela's socialist rule, first established by Hugo Chavez, is a huge undertaking.

GUAIDO: (Through interpreter) We're fighting a state apparatus that has had access to the revenues from the world's largest oil reserves. That's not just any dictatorship.

REEVES: We're in Guaido's office in Caracas. It's inside a glass and concrete high-rise in the city's business district. Here, the only clue that Guaido considers himself president is a presidential seal hanging on the wall. The office has no sign at the entrance or in reception. In March, intelligence agents arrested Guaido's office manager. He's still in jail. Guaido and his staff live under constant threat of arrest and violence. So, he says, do his family and friends.

GUAIDO: (Through interpreter) They wanted to put my mother in jail simply because she was my mother. My brother is in exile because he's my brother. Despite all this, the Venezuelan people continue to protest.

REEVES: Guaido waves his arms energetically as he reels off numbers illustrating Venezuela's crisis - the killings by police death squads, the millions who've left the country, the millions of others struggling to stay alive amid food and medicine shortages.


GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: In April, Guaido made his boldest attempt so far to assume power. He announced his campaign to oust Maduro was in its final stage and called on the armed forces to rise up. They didn't. He had gambled and lost.

Do you think it was a mistake to have done that?

GUAIDO: (Through interpreter) A protest in the name of a just cause is never a mistake.

REEVES: Many in Venezuela's security forces are deeply unhappy with what's going on, he says.

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: That includes the then-head of the intelligence service, who did defect at that time. When Guaido took that oath of office back in January, many Venezuelans embraced him as a symbol of hope from a new generation of leaders. He was 35 and president of the country's National Assembly. Guaido argued that, as head of that body, he was constitutionally entitled to assume power as interim president ahead of fresh elections because Nicolas Maduro rigged last year's vote. Luis Vicente Leon, the pollster, believes there's a risk that Venezuelans are now disengaging from politics, making it harder for Guaido to bring about change.

LEON: If the country inside don't participate to produce changes, we're not going to have any change.

REEVES: Guaido is also facing pressure from within opposition ranks. A breakaway group recently negotiated directly with Maduro's government without Guaido's approval. It's pressing Guaido to persuade the U.S., his closest ally, to lift its devastating oil sanctions, one of Maduro's core demands. There can be no political solution and no fresh elections if these sanctions stay in place, says the group's leader, Timoteo Zambrano.

TIMOTEO ZAMBRANO: (Through interpreter) I believe that if the U.S. wants this country to move toward democracy, it must lift sanctions.

REEVES: Guaido seems unimpressed. He points out the breakaway group's a tiny percentage of his parliamentary support. U.S. sanctions should stay in force, he says, because...

GUAIDO: (Through interpreter) Dictators are dictators. You have to pressure them that way. (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Guaido says he knows he's risking his life and that of his family.

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: But he says it's worth it when the fates of 30 million Venezuelans is at stake. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.