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President Maduro Consolidates Power As The Opposition Grows Weaker

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To other news now - the U.S.-backed opposition in Venezuela has spent years trying to dislodge authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro. Nothing has worked. Instead, as John Otis reports, Maduro has consolidated power while the opposition appears to be growing weaker by the day.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: It wasn't long ago that Maduro's days appeared to be numbered. His oil-rich country was facing its worst economic meltdown in history as well as crippling U.S. sanctions. Nearly 60 nations recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela's rightful head of state. In January, Guaido was a guest of honor at President Trump's State of the Union Address.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2020 STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

DONALD TRUMP: Here this evening is a very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans. Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Mr. President, please take this message...

OTIS: But Nicolas Maduro is still ensconced in the presidential palace. The Venezuelan military has ignored Guaido's calls to mutiny. Anti-government protests have petered out. Meanwhile, the opposition is split between moderates who favor negotiations and hard-liners who want military action to oust Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: The hard-line strategy backfired in May when a tiny force of exiled Venezuelan soldiers tried to invade their homeland. They were quickly captured or killed.

ANGEL ALVARADO: So it's very sad for us. Right now we have a very, very complicated situation.

OTIS: That's Angel Alvarado, a lawmaker with an opposition party called First Justice. The government jailed several party members. Then last month in a legal maneuver, it replaced the leaders of First Justice and two other opposition parties with politicians friendly to Maduro. Alvarado claims these new party bosses were paid off to switch sides.

ALVARADO: First, they persecute the leadership of our party. Then they try to divide us. And then they replace the leadership of our party with new ones that received the money of Maduro.

OTIS: The Venezuelan government ignored NPR's request for comment. Geoff Ramsey of the Washington Office on Latin America says Maduro wants to weaken but not eliminate the opposition.

GEOFF RAMSEY: It is ultimately useful for the regime to point to the existence of opposition politicians in Venezuela, as it allows them to say that they live in a democracy.

OTIS: Maduro controls nearly every government institution except for the National Assembly, which is led by Juan Guaido. But now the opposition is talking about boycotting this year's legislative elections because of fears of vote rigging. If the opposition does boycott, Guaido will no longer be president of the legislature. Geoff Ramsey notes that this post is the basis for his claim to be Venezuela's legitimate head of state.

RAMSEY: The international community is going to be at a crossroads where they'll have to decide whether to continue recognizing Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela.

OTIS: At a recent rally in Caracas, Guaido tried to buck up his followers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He acknowledged that they are worn down and frustrated. But he insisted the opposition would outlast Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They are not going to defeat us," Guaido proclaimed. "We are still here."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.