In Venezuela, the US Recognizes a Nonexistent Government

In a piece of bizarre political theater, the US now officially recognizes a government in Venezuela that does not exist. Despite the termination of the government recognized by the US, State Department spokesman Ned Price assured a press briefing that "our approach has not changed." The US still considers the elected President illegitimate – an increasingly isolated position – and the assembly the unelected president led legitimate, though he no longer leads it, and they are no longer the assembly.

Since February of 2019, the US has recognized the never elected Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, creating an already bizarre situation in which there were parallel governments in Venezuela: one recognized within the country and one recognized outside the country.

But the US plan failed in its goal of removing Nicolás Maduro from power. And after four years, the opposition in Venezuela decided to abandon the plan and move on. At the end of December, 2022, Venezuela’s opposition lawmakers by an overwhelming preliminary vote of 72-23, removed Guaidó from power and pulled the plug on his interim government. On December 30, three of Venezuela’s four main opposition parties supported the proposal to remove Guaidó.

Though the US continued to support Guaidó, few in Venezuela did. Only 6% of Venezuelans said they would support Guaidó in presidential primaries, and more than 56% said the interim government should be terminated. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College, and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, told me in November, 2022 that "For all intents and purposes he has been sidelined by developments in the country and even for those in the opposition he is a non-entity."

After the opposition move to remove Guaidó, Salas told me that, internally, the opposition is in disarray, and, externally, "[e]xcept for continuing to impose sanctions, which have also failed, Guaidó’s collapse left the US without a strategy for dealing with Venezuela."

But imposing sanctions may become more challenging. The US is increasingly isolated in its position on the government of Nicolás Maduro. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has welcomed Maduro. Colombia has returned its ambassador to Venezuela and signed a joint declaration with Venezuela to consolidate bilateral relations and deepen integration. Prior to his re-election as President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said, "I was very concerned when the U.S. and the E.U. adopted Guaidó as President of the country. You don’t play with democracy." Celso Amorim, Lula’s former minister of foreign affairs and his top foreign policy advisor said that Lula’s election “would open the door for Brazil to re-engage diplomatically with neighboring Venezuela.” He added that “Bolsonaro and US President Donald Trump achieved little by breaking off relations with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.”

Rounding out the Latin American community, Peru, Honduras and Chile have reopened communications with Venezuela, Ecuador is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and Argentina has announced that they will re-establish ties.

In an October 6, 2022 meeting of the Organization of American States, only the US, Canada, Guatemala and Paraguay supported Guaidó as the legitimate head of state.

And the US is not only being abandoned in Latin America. In 2021, the European Union made the decision to continue to recognize Guaidó as a "privileged interlocutor" but, in a break from the US, no longer to recognize him as the interim president. On November 8, at the COP27 climate summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had previously recognized Guaidó as acting president and called Maduro "illegitimate," addressed Maduro as "President" and shook his hand for one-and-a-half minutes while telling him that he "would be happy if we could talk to each other for longer to engage in useful bilateral work for the region."

Even the US, though still shunning Maduro, seems to have abandoned Guaidó. The hints were there even prior to the vote to remove him.

On October 21, CNN Spanish reported that two sources "close to the opposition leadership" said that the interim government led by Guaidó will end in January 2023. A "diplomatic source close to the Venezuelan opposition" told CNN that "the United States plans to strip him of recognition as interim president in January, when a new legislative session begins." The Miami Herald reported that a White House official said "The Biden administration will not get involved in a leadership fight within Venezuela’s struggling opposition movement as a revolt brews against its interim president, Juan Guaidó." The Herald reported that the White House official said that "The White House will not oppose this effort" to "do away with the so-called interim government." Though the US continued to recognize Guaidó, "when pressed," US officials "would not rule out revoking U.S. recognition of the interim government."

In the end, the removal of Guaidó was an internal move: the Venezuelan opposition, and not the US, stripped him of recognition. But the US did not stand in their way. The Los Angeles Times reports that "In its first comments on Guaidó’s removal, the Biden administration in effect yanked its support for Guaidó," declaring its willingness to "work with whatever entity replaces Guaidó and the so-called interim government." The Times goes on to report that, in his formal statement, State Department spokesman Ned Price "did not mention Guaidó’s name."

In a January 3 press briefing, Price was asked if "the United States still recognize[s] Juan Guaidó as legitimate interim president." Price answered that "we continue to recognize what is the only remaining democratically elected institution in Venezuela today, and that’s the 2015 National Assembly."

But since Guaidó’s claim to interim leadership, which was based on his position as annually rotating president of that National Assembly, should have expired two years ago, he is no longer the head of that Assembly. And that Assembly was replaced by the one that was democratically elected in December 2020.

The US refuses to recognize the 2020 election. But even the Venezuelan opposition recognizes it. Vijay Prashad says that when he "met the leaders of Venezuela’s two historic opposition parties in Venezuela in 2020 – Pedro José Rojas of Acción Democrática (AD) and Juan Carlos Alvarado of Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) – they told me that the 2020 election was legitimate and that they just did not know how to overrun the massive wave of Chavista voters." They told Prashad that "there might be the normal irregularities in the election, but there was no evidence of fraud leading up to the election."

The US "strategy of promoting an interim president that relied on a foreign intervention or military coup failed miserably," Salas told me. The Venezuelan opposition has put an end to that strategy. That has left both them and the US strategy for Venezuela in disarray. "In terms of our approach to Nicolás Maduro, our approach has not changed. He is illegitimate," Price said, leaving the US to recognize and work with a government that does not exist.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.