Juan Guaidó once proclaimed himself Venezuela’s rightful president to the cheers of crowds and the acclamation of the US, Europe and much of Latin America. Four years later, the end came quietly, behind closed doors and at the hands of his own side.

Members of Venezuela’s opposition decided at an online session by 72 votes to 29 on December 30 to scrap Guaidó’s “interim government”, belatedly recognising its failure to unseat the country’s socialist president Nicolás Maduro. On January 4 it appointed a new leadership triumvirate of exiled lawmakers.

Guaidó’s political stunt, sponsored by the administration of then-US president Donald Trump and backed up with crippling economic sanctions on the Maduro government and Venezuela’s once-mighty oil industry, instead turned into a foreign policy failure for Washington. The result was an exodus of refugees and the devastation of the South American nation’s economy.

“This marks the end of the US strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Venezuela,” said Francisco Rodríguez, professor of public affairs at the University of Denver. “The great majority of the opposition understood that it would lead nowhere. The interim government was clearly weakening, with fewer and fewer countries supporting it.”

Now approaching a decade in power with continued backing from Russia, China, Cuba and Iran, Maduro looks stronger than ever as he approaches the next presidential election, scheduled for 2024.

“It’s time for . . . a new geopolitics to redistribute power in the world,” Maduro proclaimed in a television interview at the start of the year. “That war in Ukraine is part of the birth pains of a [new] world which is rising. Have no doubt that we will be there . . . in the vanguard.”

The US-backed opposition, meanwhile, is in disarray. “By overturning the Interim Presidency, those deputies have committed an UNCONSTITUTIONAL HISTORICAL MISTAKE that only benefits the dictatorship,” said Carlos Vecchio, who must vacate the Venezuelan embassy residence in Washington after the demise of the interim government ended his role as its ambassador to the US, in a statement.

Damaged by the failure of the interim government, most Venezuelan opposition leaders are polling worse than Maduro, whose popularity has recovered somewhat as the economy pulls out of a nosedive that destroyed about three-quarters of gross domestic product. The IMF estimates that Venezuela’s GDP expanded 6 per cent last year and forecasts similar growth in 2023, although inflation is accelerating again.

Washington is now trying to press Maduro to resume internationally sponsored negotiations in Mexico with the Venezuelan opposition to guarantee free and fair elections in 2024, offering the carrot of sanctions relief. The Maduro government left the talks in October 2021 and has yet to restart formal discussions, despite an agreement to do so late last year.

Some experts believe the Mexico talks could deliver significant change, particularly if the US, the EU and Latin America keep up pressure on Maduro.

“Since there is — finally — the potential of progress in Venezuela and greater focus on the negotiations and the 2024 presidential elections, now is the time to start to broaden the discussion among stakeholders within Venezuela and outside,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior fellow on Latin America at Chatham House.

Sabatini said the private sector could help. “They are one of the few remaining sectors (with the exception of Cuba, China, Russia and Iran) with any pull with the Maduro government,” he said. “The trick is to engage them now to use it for positive outcomes.”

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, acting Americas chief for Human Rights Watch, added a note of caution: “The Maduro government has no incentive on its own to restart negotiations,” she said. “It’s extremely important that the governments who want to see a democratic transition support the opposition.”

Among the few things the Guaidó administration did control were Venezuelan oil industry assets in the US, central bank gold stored in the UK and diplomatic buildings in Washington. Its demise leaves them in limbo amid legal battles on both sides of the Atlantic as the Maduro government seeks to reassert control. The opposition appointed on Thursday a commission to control the assets, but it is unclear whether courts will recognise it.

Washington granted a six-month license to Chevron last November to resume pumping oil from its Venezuela oil operations, in an attempt to encourage political dialogue. Investors are hopeful the move may herald a broader economic opening in the country. It could also improve the chances of restructuring about $60bn of outstanding government and state oil company debt, currently trading at less than 10 cents on the dollar.

But for now, the fear of falling foul of US sanctions acts as a powerful deterrent to foreign investors doing business in Caracas. “Anyone coming to Venezuela now will find great deals,” one lawyer in the country said. “But while the sanctions are in place, people will think twice about committing funds.”

US officials insist that following the Chevron move, no further sanctions will be lifted unless Maduro plays ball.

With the opposition weakened, the economy improving and the political tide in Latin America turning in his favour with the election of a new crop of leftist leaders, Maduro may feel little need to make concessions.

“Today, Maduro has no credible threats on the horizon,” said Luis Vicente León, president of the Caracas-based polling and research firm Datanálisis. “I am not expecting Maduro’s exit from power in 2024.”

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