Venezuela Faces Leadership Vote

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) -- Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaid faces a major test of his leadership Sunday as he asks lawmakers to re-endorse his flagging campaign to oust President Nicols Maduro.

The opposition-controlled National Assembly will decide whether to keep Guaid as its leader for a second year in a special session inaugurating the final year of its 2015-2020 legislative period.

The weeks leading up to Sunday's vote were marked by tension, with the opposition denouncing a covert government campaign to intimidate and bribe lawmakers into voting against Guaid --- an outcome that would've embarrassed the 36-year-old lawmaker who has been recognized as Venezuela's rightful leader by more than 50 nations.

The harassment continued up until the last minute.

In a dramatic standoff, police officers wearing anti-riot helmets and flanked by metal barricades initially blocked several lawmakers from reaching the neo-classical legislature in downtown Caracas.

Amid bouts of shoving and political sloganeering, security forces demanded that each lawmaker present their credentials, arguing they were under orders to deny entry to several lawmakers banned from carrying out their duties by the loyalist supreme court.

"Is your family in Venezuela?" Guaid asked the young police officers, who stood firmly in nervous silence.

"Today you're complicit with the dictatorship, you're complicit with those who are responsible for the hunger inside Venezuela," he added. He was eventually allowed though the police line.

Dozens of journalists accredited by the legislature were also blocked from covering the session, as security forces demanded they have permission from Maduro's Communications Ministry, a reversal from past practice.

Support for Guaid inside the opposition has also taken a hit after several minority parties in November splintered off to create a separate bloc to negotiate directly with Maduro --- something that Guaid has refused, arguing that talks are simply a time-buying exercise aimed at keeping Maduro in power.

While Guaid is expected to win re-election, he faces a bigger challenge articulating a fresh vision for removing Maduro.

"The big question for this year is whether Guaid will be able to use his waning political strength to guide his coalition through such a rocky period," said Geoff Ramsey, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. "Opposition unity is already fraying at the edges, and the armed forces appear less likely than ever to abandon Maduro."

Guaid declared presidential powers over Venezuela on Jan. 23, 2019, saying Maduro's reelection was illegitimate because the most popular opposition parties and political leaders had been disqualified from running.

Venezuela sits atop vast oil and mineral resources, but it has been imploding economically and socially in recent years. Critics blame the plunge on years of failed socialist rule and corruption, while Maduro's allies say U.S. sanctions are taking a toll on the economy. The South American nation's 30 million people suffer soaring inflation and shortages of gasoline, running water and electricity, among basic services.

An estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have abandoned their nation in an exodus rivaling war-torn Syria.

Maduro, who took over after the 2013 death of former President Hugo Chvez, says Guaid is a puppet of the United States. Maduro also says he's determined to win control of the National Assembly in elections later this year.

"Despite perversions of the imperialist United States against Venezuela during 2019, we've managed to hold onto our independence, peace and stability," Maduro tweeted. "I know that in 2020, with all of our efforts we will enjoy more economic prosperity."

The two men remain locked in a power struggle. However, Maduro maintains military backing and control over most branches of the government, despite the deepening crisis and hard-hitting financial sanctions from the United States.

Guaid says he's confident he will maintain his seat as head of the congress and press ahead with the campaign to oust Maduro.

Weeks ahead of the vote deciding Guaid's leadership, the opposition-dominated congress changed its rules, allowing lawmakers who have fled Venezuela for fear of persecution by Maduro's government to debate and vote from a distance. U.S. officials recently brought several key opposition leaders to Washington to discuss strategies for rallying around Guaid.

Ramsey said this is an important moment for Venezuela's opposition.

"Guaid will have to not only re-energize his base and convince them to stay engaged, but keep his coalition in line as well," he said. "And the clock is ticking."

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