Caracas, Venezuela | AFP | Juan Guaido proudly calls himself a “survivor.”
He will need to be: the bold young politician, head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled legislature, became public enemy number one when he declared himself interim president Wednesday, defying embattled President Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido did not set out to supplant Maduro, the socialist president who has presided over a spiraling political and economic crisis in Venezuela.
But the sometimes reserved 35-year-old was thrust to the front of the Venezuelan opposition when more senior leaders were forced from the scene — some detained, some banned from politics and some pushed into exile.
Guaido brazenly called out Maduro as he took a revised oath of office before a crowd of thousands in Caracas, saying, “I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, (install) a transitional government and hold free elections.”
US President Donald Trump immediately recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president, followed by a string of countries across the region.
Maduro, the hand-picked successor to late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, calls Guaido “a kid playing at politics.”
But the self-declared interim president, an industrial engineer by training, has shown no fear in challenging the socialist leader’s election to a second term, in a May vote that was boycotted by the opposition and rejected by the United States, European Union and a dozen Latin American countries.
Guaido, who became the youngest person ever to preside over the legislature on January 5, has never been a great public speaker.
But he is known as a talented coalition-builder — something Venezuela’s divided and disorganized opposition badly needs.
“One of his main virtues is arming teams. He understands the differing positions and does everything in his power to bring them together,” 32-year-old lawmaker Juan Andres Mejia told AFP.
– ‘Fresh face’ –
In his short tenure as legislative leader, Guaido got the opposition majority to officially declare Maduro a “usurper” and his re-election a fraud, while promising an amnesty for all military and government officials who disavow the president.
He has gained confidence along the way, grinning at rallies and speaking with greater ease.
What he hasn’t found a solution to, though, is his powerlessness in the face of a government that retains the support of the military high command and the Supreme Court.
Guaido has not been shy in reaching out to the armed forces seeking the backing he would need to take power definitively.
“I’m a survivor, not a victim,” he has said, recalling how he survived one of Venezuela’s worst natural disasters as a teenager: the Vargas tragedy of December 1999, when mudslides caused by torrential rain killed thousands of people.
Back then, Guaido lived with his mother and five siblings in the coastal state of Vargas.
“I know what it means to be hungry,” he said.
His introduction to politics came alongside the generation of students that held mass protests against Chavez in 2007.
That movement inflicted Chavez’s only electoral defeat, in a referendum on reforming the constitution.
“Guaido is a fresh face, considered a man of consensus by the moderates and also respected by the radicals for having taken part in those protests,” Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst at London-based IHS Markit consultants, told AFP.
Guaido was a founding member of the Popular Will (VP) party in 2009 and has now become its most recognizable face. Previous leader Leopoldo Lopez is under house arrest for leading anti-Maduro protests in 2014, and his heir apparent, Freddy Guevara, fled to the Chilean embassy after he was accused of inciting violent protests in 2017.
– Living dangerously –
Guaido, who took part in those protests, was elected deputy for his native Vargas in 2015.
He caused ripples by accusing state oil company PDVSA of corruption, but remained a relative unknown until recently.
“To be honest, I didn’t know who he was. Hopefully he won’t prove a fraud,” said Jose Hernandez, a 24-year-old administrator, at a recent rally in support of Guaido.
Mejia, his legislative colleague, says Guaido is playing “a difficult game”: Venezuela is “used to personality cults and authoritarian leadership, and that’s placing a big burden on Juan. Change doesn’t depend only on him, it’s down to everyone.”
Guaido was briefly detained by intelligence agents on January 13. But he was released after less than an hour.
The government later blamed the incident on rogue agents acting unilaterally, arresting 12 people.
But Guaido has ample reason to be on the lookout. Prison service minister Iris Varela has said of him: “I’ve already got his jail cell prepared.