Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has met obstacles at nearly every turn since he declared presidential powers in a bid to end socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s rule, and his visit to this once-thriving oil centre was no different.
He was forced to take a boat to outmanoeuvre police roadblocks and reach throngs of supporters waiting to hear him speak in the sweltering heat in Maracaibo, a city now infamous for its blackouts.
Security forces had blocked the bridge across Lake Maracaibo just as Guaido arrived on Sunday. Undeterred, the 35-year-old opposition leader and his entourage boarded a private boat and sped off across the water.
While Guaido has gained backing from the United States and some 50 other nations, Maduro remains firmly entrenched nearly three months into the struggle for control of Venezuela. Guaido has been stripped of his immunity and faces the looming threat of arrest – something he warned would be a “big mistake.”
“It would only deepen the crisis,” Guaido told The Associated Press as the boat crossed the choppy waters. “The consequences would only hurt the regime.”
Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city of 1.5 million where refineries that once hummed with constant activity have fallen into disrepair, is a window into a nation that has plunged into chaos.
The power has returned for most of Venezuela after a massive electrical grid failure that blanketed most of the country’s 30 million residents for days starting March 7. But Maracaibo hasn’t bounced back.
The city is a crumbling version of its former self. Gushing oil wells that helped make a nation with the world’s largest oil reserves flush with cash have given way to broken-down oil platforms that sit idle as nearby shores are black with oozing crude.
Maracaibo has endured rampant blackouts for more than a year, leaving residents of a city where temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees without air conditioning and refrigerators, spoiling food. In the streets, residents spend hours searching for water, and schools barely open.
Frustration spilled over for several days in mid-March, with mass looting by mobs that overran shopping centres sacking 523 stores – many of which have not reopened their doors.
Residents say they live in fear of a serious illness or injury. Doctors in the main emergency hospital tell patients to bring their own water to clean wounds and even the most basic items like aspirin are lacking.
Guaido’s first visit to Maracaibo since declaring presidential powers on Jan. 23 comes at a time when he seeks to tap into popular frustration and anger to re-energize his campaign.
Some fear he’s leading yet another fatally stalled opposition movement unable to break free from Maduro. Guaido has failed to win a critical mass of the armed forces away from Maduro or bring in international shipments of humanitarian aid.
The masses of supporters who flooded the streets in the capital, Caracas, immediately after Guaido declared presidential powers aimed at toppling Maduro have begun to wane.
But in Maracaibo, a historic opposition stronghold, he was met Sunday by thousands who turned out at a series of rallies to hear him speak even as his voice turned hoarse. Several thousand followers waited more than four hours in the middle of one of the city’s main avenues.
The visit came as pressure on Guaido is only tightening. The National Constituent Assembly, stacked with Maduro loyalists, withdrew Guaido’s parliamentary immunity earlier this month, opening the path to prosecute and arrest him for allegedly violating the constitution. Days earlier Guaido’s chief of staff was jailed as an accused terrorist.
Guaido said he has urged his international backers to adopt a stance of “zero tolerance” toward Venezuela’s rampant corruption and the mismanagement of its resources.
Maduro boasts support from Russia, China and Turkey, but Guaido dismissed that as “more of a show” than having any substance amid Venezuela’s crisis. Guaido refuses to negotiate with Maduro.
“There’s no possibility of a dialogue with Maduro,” Guaido said. “He’s the problem.”
Given the fading anti-government protests and the opposition’s refusal to open a dialogue with Maduro, the option of some sort of U.S. military deployment – starting with efforts to bolster humanitarian aid deliveries to Venezuela – has been gaining strength, especially among some figures in Washington.
“It is becoming clear that we will have to consider the use of American military assets to deliver aid,” Florida Sen. Rick Scott said last week at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Maduro and his thugs have left us no choice.”
The Trump administration is determined to see Maduro removed from power, preferably through diplomatic and economic pressure. The White House has slapped dozens of officials in Maduro’s government with financial sanctions and targeted Venezuela’s oil industry, its most important source of revenue. But while White House officials have repeatedly warned that “all options are on the table,” no plan appears to be in place backing up the tough talk.
Reaching the other side of Lake Maracaibo, Guaido hit another police roadblock. His entourage abandoned their cars and turned to local residents to help them navigate around back-roads.
Guaido spoke at several rallies, urging Venezuelans not to give into Venezuela’s collapsing public services. Rather, he said, they need to keep the protests alive throughout the country, rejecting Maduro’s government.
“We’re not going to bend our knees – if that’s what they tell us to do,” Guaido said, as the mass of people cheered in support. “Yes we can!” they shouted.