Guaidó springs into Venezuela’s limelight with challenge to Maduro
Question of which leader prevails may depend in large part on country’s armed forces
At the start of this year, few people in Venezuela – let alone outside it – knew much about Juan Guaidó. Now the 35-year-old has been formally recognised by US president Donald Trump and a swath of Latin American leaders as his nation’s legitimate interim president – a defiant escalation of international pressure on the regime of Nicolás Maduro.
The recognition stems from his position as president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, or Congress – regarded by many as the country’s last bastion of democracy, but held in contempt by Maduro.
Guaidó was elected in 2015 as a representative of his home state of Vargas on the Caribbean coast. But it was only on January 5th that his party, Popular Will (Voluntad Popular), assumed the assembly’s presidency under a power-sharing agreement with its allies, catapulting Guaidó to centre stage.
In many ways he is an accidental leader. Leopoldo López, Popular Will’s leader, is under house arrest and other senior party figures have been sidelined. One is in exile in the US, while another is sheltering in the Chilean embassy in Caracas out of fear of arrest.
Partly as a result, it has fallen to Guaidó to lead domestic opposition to Maduro, inaugurated for a second term this month, but whose government is no longer recognised by much of the world.
In one of his first interviews this month, he suggested he was prepared to take on the challenge. “The Venezuelan opposition is not perfect,” the tall, angular Guaidó told the Financial Times in Caracas, leaning forward in his chair in his office inside the ornate 19th-century assembly building. “But we are committed to keep applying the pressure necessary to bring about a change.
“Nicolás Maduro is not going to have an epiphany and accept he should step aside ... It will come about through pressure.”
Within days of his appointment, Iris Varela, Venezuela’s minister for prisons, said she had prepared Guaidó’s prison cell and uniform. “I hope you name your cabinet soon so I know who’s going to join you,” she said in a tweet.
Two days later, Guaidó was briefly detained by members of Venezuela’s secret police force in what the Maduro government dismissed as a “media show”.
If anything, Guaidó has subsequently become more outspoken, culminating in his decision to take a self-administered oath as Venezuela’s interim president during massive street protests in Caracas on Wednesday.
Within minutes, Trump issued a statement recognising him, and was swiftly followed by countries across the Americas. Nonetheless, there are plenty of other countries – Russia, China, Mexico and Cuba – who regard that decision as illegitimate and still see Maduro as Venezuela’s leader.
Who prevails now may depend in large part on the action of Venezuela’s armed forces, as Guaidó – from a military family – knows. One of his grandfathers was a sergeant in the national guard, Venezuela’s military police. The other was a navy captain.
“Our family still has close links to the military. They’re suffering the same as everyone else. They’re suffering from desertions in the ranks and food shortages,” he said.
Guaidó’s political thought was shaped in part by a devastating natural disaster. In December 1999, when he was 16, Vargas was hit by massive mudslides that killed thousands. Guaidó watched as the state – in the early days of the “Bolivarian” revolution started by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez – struggled to respond.
Ten years later, Guaidó became a founding member of Popular Will and a follower of López, who was imprisoned after leading protests against the Maduro government in 2014.
Married with a young daughter, Guaidó was himself injured in protests in 2017. After his brief detention this month, he said he would not back down.
“The game has changed. The people are on the streets,” he told a crowd of cheering supporters. “If [by arresting me] they wanted to send a message and make us hide, here is their answer,” he said. “We’re here!” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019