CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Tour operator Alejandro Palácios joined hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans protesting in the streets early this year, wanting to believe that things would finally change in the country as upstart opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied international support and promised a swift end to President Nicolás Maduro's rule.
To Palacios, Guaidó seemed different from the string of past opposition leaders who had challenged Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, during 20 years of increasingly authoritarian socialist rule.
The United States and dozens of nations threw their support behind the youthful congressional leader, recognizing him as the country's legitimate president, arguing that Maduro's re-election was invalidated by fraud and a ban on most opponents.
And there seemed to be signs that the military might heed Guaidó's repeated calls for soldiers to abandon Maduro. A few joined him in the streets in a quickly quelled uprising. The United States and other nations sent caravans of aid to Venezuela's borders to be distributed by Guaidó's backers, and they were put in charge of many Venezuelan embassies and assets abroad.
Then February turned to March, and the months marched by. No international aid made it through Maduro's blockade. The military stayed loyal. Even the nation's catastrophic economy began to improve slightly. Maduro remains in power.
"Here we are today, like nothing ever happened," said a disillusioned Palácios, 26, who has watched many relatives pack up and leave in desperation while he stayed behind to care for his parents living on a government pension constantly shrinking under the world's highest inflation.
Palácios no longer answers Guaidó’s calls to protest, nor do most of the others who once filled the streets.
Cracks have even appeared in Guaidó’s base of support in the National Assembly, the only major institution controlled by the opposition. His re-election as congressional president is no longer assured and legislators’ official terms expire in a few months.
Throughout, the 36-year-old Guaidó has admitted no mistakes, and neither he nor his backers in Washington have offered a fresh strategy to rescue their floundering battle to unseat Maduro. The Trump administration has continued to pile economic and travel sanctions onto members of Maduro’s inner circle, but so far with little effect.
"We're up against a dictatorship," Guaidó said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think that is central."
Guaidó said he remains focused on winning over the military, the linchpin of support for Maduro, and he dismissed the idea of further negotiations with the socialist administration — talks his side says Maduro has used to defuse protests without making concessions.
He also said he favors boycotting legislative elections in 2020 so long as the electoral board running the vote remains packed with Maduro loyalists.
Still, Guaidó insists his domestic and international support will grow.
Guaidó, the handpicked successor to then-detained opposition leader Leopoldo López, leaped onto the stage last January at a dark moment in the once-wealthy nation's history. Despite sitting atop the world's largest proven oil reserves, gasoline shortages plague the nation, most homes don't have reliable drinking water or electricity and there are shortages of food, medicine and spare parts.
Roughly 4.5 million people have left the country, figures that rival mass migration from war-torn Syria.