New Venezuela parliament leaves Western-backed Guaido out in cold

Caracas (AFP) –

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A new Venezuelan parliament will be sworn in Tuesday with President Nicolas Maduro's party now in almost complete control and Western-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido out in the political cold.

Venezuelans have lived almost two years with both men laying claim to the presidency, with Maduro labeled a dictator and subject to Western sanctions and Guaido recognized as the country's legitimate leader by the United States and more than 50 other nations.

Crucially, though, Maduro has retained the support of Venezuela's powerful military and every branch of government that was able to exercise actual power.

Only the National Assembly, or congress, was beyond his grasp -- until now.

Lawmakers carrying pictures of South American revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar and late socialist president Hugo Chavez arrived at the National Assembly building on Tuesday morning ahead of the swearing in ceremony.

Maduro allies won 256 of the 277 seats in the parliament after last month's legislative elections were boycotted by the main opposition parties, led by Guaido.

This means that on Tuesday, Guaido will be out of his job as National Assembly speaker, losing the limited institutional legitimacy he had, and leaving foreign governments backing his claim to the presidency in a difficult position.

- 'On our feet' -

He remains defiant, though, since last month the outgoing parliament passed a decree allowing itself to continue functioning in parallel with the new Maduro-majority chamber until fresh elections are held in 2021.

"My first message is to Maduro and it is that we're here, on our feet," said Guaido in a video posted on social media as he held a parliamentary session from an unknown location.

He described the official swearing in ceremony as "a show taking place in a Federal Legislative Palace hijacked by a dictator that no one recognizes."

"I do not think that this duality (of power) will continue for much longer," Benigno Alarcon, director of the Center of Politics and Government at Venezuela's Andres Bello Catholic University, told AFP.

Maduro, he said, "has control of the country through force" and a firm grip on all state institutions.

This means, among other things, he could use Covid-19 restrictions on movement to ban any possible protests against his rule.

At the same time, Guaido is faced with increasingly feeble opposition mobilization.

A referendum-style consultation called by Guaido and held over five days in December for people to condemn the December 6 vote and Maduro with it failed to muster the large numbers of opposition supporters that participated in the protests of 2019.

- 'Usurper' -

On January 23, 2019, Guaido proclaimed himself interim president before a large crowd after the then-opposition controlled parliament branded Maduro a "usurper" fraudulently reelected in May 2018.

This bold step marked a turning point in the political crisis in recession-hit Venezuela.

It unleashed fresh protests against Maduro, and Guaido's popularity soared to around 80 percent, according to polling firms such as Datanalisis.

But the president refused to cede, and the standoff continues to this day.

The outgoing opposition-led National Assembly is trying to maintain its existence but political scientist Jesus Castillo-Mollendo said its unilateral ruling to continue sitting has no basis in law.

Nor does it seem to enjoy much popular support, added Alarcon.

"Inside Venezuela, everyone knows that this position is more symbolic than anything, that there is no way of exercising it because there is no control of the institutions," he said.

Even while the opposition controlled the National Assembly for five years, they had no actual power as the regime-dominated Supreme Court annulled their every decision.

- What will Biden do? -

"It is very likely that... Guaido will remain an opposition leader in exile," said Rafael Alvarez, analyst at the firm Iuriscorp.

However, Guaido insisted in a recent interview with AFP that he had no intention of leaving the country, despite threats of imprisonment.

All eyes now turn to the presidency of Democrat Joe Biden after the departure of Donald Trump, whose administration imposed heavy sanctions in a bid to force Maduro to leave, without success.

"We may see different strategies of approaching the crisis, without abandoning the pressure," said Alvarez of Biden's likely approach.