Sunday saw a new set of bizarre images pouring out of Venezuela as Juan Guaidó — the opposition leader recognized as the legitimate president of the country by the United States and most of the international community — tried to jump a fence to sneak into the National Assembly, of which he is president, only to be stopped by a phalanx of soldiers. Inside the building, a pro-regime rump assembly was busy electing a government-aligned rival to succeed him as parliamentary president, while the regime argued, incongruously, that Guaidó had forfeited his title by failing to turn up to the assembly floor on the appointed day.
Confused? You should be. Venezuela’s Kabuki theater politics burst the banks of plausibility a long time ago. More than a political scene, Venezuelans have dual personalities playing out on a national scale.
For a year now, the country has lived a strange kind of split reality — two men claim to be presidents, two separate National Assemblies share the legislative palace in Caracas, two supreme courts — one in-country, the other in exile. In each case, the opposition’s institutions are recognized by the vast bulk of the international community but have little to no power in the country, while the regime’s institutions are solidly entrenched in power at home but shunned by all but a handful of rogue actors abroad.
The stalemate between the two has gone on longer than anyone thought plausible when it began in early 2019. Back then, the assumption was that Guaidó’s challenge to Nicolás Maduro would either end in his ouster in relatively short order or sputter and halt relatively quickly. Neither has happened. Instead, the conflict has settled into an absurdist new normal with two sides jockeying for legitimacy while the country goes increasingly ungoverned.
To be sure, Maduro retains the loyalty that matters most: The men with guns do what he says. In that very narrow sense, he remains in control of the country. Yet more and more of the basic functions of governance simply go unfulfilled, because the government is too broke, too incompetent or too short-staffed to achieve them.
Hospitals and schools barely function; the electric grid is off more often than on in most of the country; telecommunications barely work. Those things aren’t new. Yet in the past few months, even more basic aspects of governance have collapsed. The government has as good as thrown in the towel in the fight against hyperinflation, and it’s no longer enforcing old laws against transacting in foreign currency, so more and more Venezuelans pay for things in U.S. dollars, Colombian pesos or Brazilian reais. In part, this is due to draconian U.S. sanctions that have left the regime desperately short of cash.
In fact, Maduro has stopped enforcing most laws: labor rules, price controls, anti-money laundering and even just basic police work are all now beyond his capacity to deliver. Mass emigration has played a role: Most skilled public administrators are now waiting tables in Colombia or driving Ubers in Peru rather than manning their posts in Caracas.
The result is a kind of pervasive lawlessness where anything goes, as long as you keep Maduro on your good side. Rather than the rigid socialism Venezuela is sometimes portrayed as embodying, the country is increasingly anarchic: a vast ungoverned space where men with guns prey on the weak with impunity.
Sunday’s move against Guaidó is, in one way, a second-order consequence of the growing tensions between the United States and Iran: With Washington’s foreign policy brain concentrated overwhelmingly on the Middle East, second-tier U.S. adversaries like Maduro find they have a little extra space to maneuver. An aggressive move to sideline Guaidó would likely have seemed too risky to Maduro before the Soleimani strike. But with the United States bracing for impact with Iran, there’s added room to try to regain the initiative against opponents.
Arguably, though, Maduro’s move backfired: Rather than bringing him more international recognition, it’s caused two important left-wing governments in Latin America broadly sympathetic to him — Argentina and Mexico — to seek to distance themselves. Not exactly a diplomatic earthquake, granted, but not what Maduro would have been hoping for, either.
For the moment, Venezuela’s politics remain as disconnected as ever from the dire realities citizens face on the ground. Economic implosion, state failure and normalized lawlessness are the problems now overwhelming Venezuelans day-to-day. Their leaders seem too busy struggling for power to take much notice.
Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.