CARACAS, Venezuela — From an unremarkable apartment in a quiet residential area of Venezuela’s capital, a slender young man in a tie wages an increasingly lonely battle against the country’s authoritarian government.
Two years ago, Juan Guaidó transformed himself from little-known lawmaker to national hero by posing the most serious threat to date to the deeply unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro.
During a euphoric anti-government protest, Mr. Guaidó declared Mr. Maduro an illegitimate ruler and himself the interim head of state, drawing an outpouring of support from Venezuelans, the diplomatic recognition of around sixty democracies, and staunch American backing. Against great odds, he united the country’s fractured opposition and offered hope in a nation crushed by repression and economic collapse.
Today, the adoring crowds are gone, many international allies are wavering, and the opposition coalition is crumbling — while Mr. Maduro appears more entrenched than ever.
Mr. Guaidó’s meteoric rise in January 2019 and now his decline have brought Venezuela to a political crossroads that could define the country for years to come. At stake are the future of Venezuelans mired in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and the survival of organized political dissent in a nation that was once a prosperous democracy.
Mr. Guaidó and his allies still insist that they constitute the rightful government, and try to use international pressure to force Mr. Maduro to hold free and fair presidential elections.
“I think we’re close to a political solution,” Mr. Guaidó said. “There’s no way that Maduro can recover the international confidence that’s the cornerstone of any economic recovery.”
But despite his defiance, many of the remaining opposition leaders in Venezuela speak privately of a movement at its lowest ebb, mired in fear, recrimination and dwindling morale.
American sanctions designed to assist Mr. Guaidó have gutted government revenues but also forced citizens to focus on daily survival, not political mobilization. His attempts to trigger a military uprising ended up consolidating Mr. Maduro’s control of the armed forces.
One opposition official burst into tears when describing the tension of living under the constant threat of arrest. Another spoke of growing public apathy toward politics, adding, “We’re on the verge of disappearing.” Both spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party matters.
The risks, frustrations and failures of the past two years have come at great personal cost to Mr. Guaidó, 37, and those around him.
Unrelenting government persecution has dismantled his entourage and targeted his family. His chief of staff and his uncle both spent months in prison. Most of his advisers and close relatives have fled the country.
“The worst thing,” Mr. Guaidó added, thinking of his 3-year-old daughter, “is having to explain to a child why the police follow her.”
He is not giving in. “This has been a great sacrifice, but I’d repeat it a thousand times,” he insisted in an interview.
A growing chorus within the opposition, however, says it is time to abandon efforts to force an immediate change in government and focus on political survival.
For some, that includes going against Mr. Guaidó’s insistence that they boycott any political talks that don’t pave the way for Mr. Maduro’s exit. They are also preparing to participate in regional and local elections later this year — even if the votes fall short of being free and fair.
One opposition leader, Carlos Ocariz recently began holding rallies in the important state of Miranda ahead of elections for governor. Another, Henry Ramos Allup, told his party officials last month they have a right to aspire to office in the upcoming vote.
“We have to build a strategy based on reality,” said Henrique Capriles, a prominent opposition leader and former presidential candidate. “The current strategy has exhausted itself and has to change.”
The offices at stake wield limited political power, underlining the predicament of Mr. Maduro’s opponents. At best, the opposition can hope to win a minority of governorships — positions which the federal government has stripped of meaningful financial resources and authority.
Mr. Guaidó’s remaining strength rests with his diplomatic recognition by the United States and its allies, but many European and Latin American nations have distanced themselves from him since his term as congressional speaker expired on Jan. 5. His decision to extend his time in office using arcane legal arguments is supported by the United States, but has otherwise drawn a lukewarm international reaction. A group of right-leaning Latin American governments no longer refer to him as interim president.
His failure to dislodge Mr. Maduro has put Mr. Guaidó’s international allies in the increasingly untenable position of recognizing a leader who has no control over the country, said Luis Vicente León, a Caracas-based pollster.
“How much longer can you keep up the act?” he asked.
Some European diplomats suggest that they might recognize the results of sufficiently free elections for governor, with or without Mr. Guaidó’s approval. That could lead to the emergence rivals to Mr. Guaidó for the opposition leadership.
But the United States, his most important ally, has rejected that strategy. “The focus must be free and fair presidential elections,” said James Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.
After Mr. Guaidó proclaimed himself president, the Trump administration spent $30 million to support the National Assembly — which the opposition controlled until December — and other political activity in Venezuela, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
In addition, the Treasury Department approved the transfer of tens of millions of dollars from frozen U.S. bank accounts previously controlled by Mr. Maduro to cover some expenses of Mr. Guaidó’s interim government. The exact amounts and recipients have not been made public.
Mr. Guaidó’s team distributed $11 million to help Venezuela’s medical workers through November, and it is now trying to help the country pay for coronavirus vaccines. But so far, most Venezuelans have seen little practical benefit from the assets that came under his control.
The heads of the four largest opposition parties comprising Mr. Guaidó’s parallel administration didn’t make themselves available for interviews.
The election of President Biden unleashed a flurry of speculation among politicians, businesspeople and diplomats in Caracas about the incoming administration’s intentions.
At his confirmation hearing last month, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he did not plan to open negotiations with Mr. Maduro and made clear that Washington would continue to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader.
Yet Mr. Blinken also described Venezuela as an intractable problem. “In Venezuela, I have to tell you, I’m just not satisfied that anyone has a good plan,” he said.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged in an interview that Mr. Guaidó “may not be the one to bring everybody together.”
“But for right now, he is the vehicle by which we have to work to bring the opposition together,” he said.
Mr. Guaidó insists the opposition must remain united behind him to oust the regime.
His harshest internal critics, however, say that exiled interim government officials are too content with the status quo. Venezuela’s opposition, they argue, risks following the path of exiled Cuban opponents of Fidel Castro, who have maintained a successful political machine for six decades without triggering change inside the island.
“Carrying on doesn’t make any sense,” said Stalin González, a close former ally of Mr. Guaidó’s who broke with him in recent months. “Both Maduro and part of the opposition want to convert this into Cuba, because it suits them both.”
Isayen Herrera contributed reporting.