When Juan Guaido raised his right hand and symbolically swore himself in as Venezuela’s interim president nearly two years ago, the tens of thousands watching on a main Caracas avenue rejoiced.
As the country’s national anthem, “Glory to the Brave People,” then blasted through loudspeakers, some lifted their hands in a sign of victory, crying and overwhelmed with emotion.
The trickle of news alerts in the following days advising that another country had recognised the 35 year-old as the country’s rightful leader seemed to confirm their certainty that Nicolas Maduro would soon be forced from the presidential palace.
But two years on and Mr Maduro remains in power with complete control. And after parliamentary elections on Sunday, that claim will likely collapse entirely when he loses his seat and thus his claim as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
He may also lose his freedom.
With Guaido’s term ending, so too will his parliamentary immunity. Mr Maduro may feel emboldened to detain the opposition leader or force him to flee the country.
In an ominous sign of Mr Guaido’s international support disintegrating, on Tuesday his envoy to the United Kingdom, Vanessa Neumann, announced her resignation from the post, appearing to jump ship before it sinks completely.
“My affection for, and ties to, the UK will always run deep,” Neumann told The Sunday Telegraph. “This is not an election anyone in the Western world would recognise,” she added.
Mr Guaido has promised that the current parliament’s term will continue, citing a vague legal theory of “constitutional continuity.” The claims are unlike to get him far.
For Mr Maduro the election offers an opportunity to declare victory in a power struggle that has dragged on for too long. In the streets, Mr Maduro’s allies have launched an aggressive media and ground offensive that would suggest the vote is a competitive race. State TV broadcasts raucous government rallies held throughout the country.
“Let’s go together to vote for Venezuela, all together we will rescue the National Assembly,” pop stars Chucho y Omar Acedo sing in the chorus of a catchy humber seemingly playing on loop on radio and TV and from loudspeakers on trucks driving through the streets.
Giving the election some semblance of legitimacy, hundreds of candidates identifying as opposition to Mr Maduro have enrolled in defiance of Guaido’s boycott. The country’s pro-regime electoral board has banned prominent politicians from a handful of traditional opposition parties.
Some polls show as little as 14 per cent of Venezuelans plan to vote.
“This isn’t a democratic vote and no right in this country is guaranteed,” Lauren Caballero, one of the few opposition candidates standing told the Sunday Telegraph. “If there are not fair conditions, we will conquer them, but not by standing idly by.”
This week Mr Caballero campaigned in working class neighborhoods in his hometown La Guaira state on the country’s coast. A handful of young supporters beating drums drew neighbors to their doors where Caballero offered his pitch.
“We don’t have water or electricity, but here they are asking for votes again,” Carmen Mile, an unemployed mother of four, said.
The country’s economic crisis has only worsened in the two years since Guaido declared himself president. Three continuous years of hyperinflation have ravaged incomes. Currently a monthly minimum wage buys only a kilo of pasta. Over 5 million have fled the country since the crisis began in 2013. The country’s collapsing infrastructure means many spend months without running water.
A recent study published by the country’s main universities found that in vulnerable communities, 100 per cent of residents live with food insecurity. “Whoever doesn’t vote, won’t eat, for whoever doesn’t vote, there won’t be food,” regime number two Diosdado Cabello said through laughter at a rally on Monday in central Venezuela.
Tens of thousands have become dependent on the sporadic delivery of government food boxes to survive the crisis. Maduro has promised a “special prize” for the communities with the highest turnout. Mile, the woman visited by the dissident opposition candidate on the coast, said she plans to vote, but wouldn’t specify for whom. She survives on government handouts and money from odd jobs from her children. “It’s an obligation, I’ll just say that,” she said.
Additional reporting by Daniel Blanco Paz and Ivanna Laura in La Guaira, Venezuela