Venezuela: Juan Guaido’s rise from obscurity to self-declared interim president is meteoric but risky

Young lawmaker sets up high-stakes standoff with Nicolas Maduro as economic crisis deepens

Fabiola Sanchez,Scott Smith
Thursday 24 January 2019 13:51 GMT
Juan Guaidó declares himself interim president of Venezuela

The rise of Juan Guaido from back-bench obscurity to the US-backed, self-declared interim president of Venezuela in just three weeks has been meteoric - and by his own recognition risky.

Few of his countrymen had even heard of the fresh-faced, 35-year-old politician when he was plucked from anonymity and named as president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in early January. The move set up a high-stakes standoff with President Nicolas Maduro, who is increasingly seen as a dictator both at home and abroad.

Instead of backing down, Mr Guaido stunned Venezuelans by declaring himself interim president before cheering supporters in Venezuela's capital, buoyed by massive anti-government protests. And support from President Donald Trump, Canada and numerous Latin American countries, along with the Organisation of American States, immediately rolled in.

But even as he was symbolically sworn in, he foretold of dangers, telling supporters: "We know that this will have consequences."

Moments later he slipped away to an unknown location amid speculation he would soon be arrested.

Last week, Venezuela's feared SEBIN intelligence police pulled Mr Guaido from his vehicle as he headed to a town hall meeting and briefly detained him. The rival constitutional assembly controlled by Mr Maduro's allies also threatened Mr Guaido and others with an investigation for treason.

Key to Mr Guaido's rise to prominence has been timing and behind-the-scenes backing.

As Venezuela's economic crisis deepens, with masses fleeing the country to escape runaway inflation on pace to surpass 23 million per cent, many are desperate for a new leader to rescue the once-wealthy oil nation. Into that void stepped Mr Guaido.

An industrial engineer who cut his political teeth in a student protest movement a decade ago, he was elected to the National Assembly in 2015 and in its first session this year was named its leader.

At the time, Mr Maduro made light of his newcomer status, feigning confusion over whether his name was "Guaido" or "Guaire," a notoriously polluted river that runs through Caracas.

But following his presidential self-declaration and a US-led chorus of Western hemisphere nations backing his challenge, Mr Maduro responded with fury, swiftly cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States and giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

The architect of Mr Guaido's meteoric rise is Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela's most popular opposition leader, who is muzzled under house arrest and considered by government opponents to be a political prisoner.

At a time when many had written off the National Assembly, which was stripped of its last bit of power after the government set up the rival constitutional assembly in 2017, Mr Lopez manoeuvred behind the scenes for his Popular Will party to assume the presidency of the gutted legislature.

He then tapped Mr Guaido, serving his first full term as a politician, who rose to the helm of their party in Venezuela after eight more senior politicians sitting on Popular Will's national board were exiled since 2014.

Mr Guaido has been a loyal acolyte of Mr Lopez for years, standing beside him at a 2014 news conference when the activist announced a strategy of anti-Maduro unrest. What was called "The Exit" bitterly divided the opposition because it came less than a year into Mr Maduro's presidency, when support for his rule was still strong.

The two talk a half dozen times each day and not a single speech or move is not coordinated with Mr Lopez first, said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the internal proceedings.

Because Mr Guaido was unknown, one pollster said he had not even measured Mr Guaido's approval ratings, like he does numerous other politicians. But he plans to start doing so this week.

Critics say Mr Guaido lacks a political vision, pointing to his rambling debut speech as the legislature's president, which was full of rhetorical barbs aimed at the "usurper" Maduro but short on specifics on how to get out of the malaise.

Still, others see his youth and relative inexperience as breathing life into the beaten-down opposition, making Mr Maduro's frequent diatribes that it is dominated by elitist relics from Venezuela's pre-revolutionary past harder to stick.

Mr Guaido told Associated Press in a recent interview he does not fear running into the same fate as his political allies. He pointed to scars on his neck caused by rubber bullets fired during 2017 street demonstrations against Mr Maduro.

"I still have projectiles lodged here," he said.

Mr Guaido has endured hardships for much of his life. At age 15, shortly after Mr Maduro's mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, assumed the presidency and ushered in a socialist overhaul, Mr Guaido and his family survived a torrential mudslide that killed thousands and left many more homeless in the port city of La Guaira, a short distance from Caracas and home to the capital's airport.

"We are survivors," he said. "If they take Juan Guaido prisoner, someone else will emerge, because our generation won't give up."

Like Mr Lopez, the wiry Mr Guaido prides himself on being an athlete and is a devotee of his hometown's Sharks — a perennial loser in the Venezuelan baseball league. He and his wife, a fellow activist, have a daughter named for Francisco de Miranda, a precursor to Venezuelan independence hero Simon Bolivar.

While in congress, Mr Guaido earned a reputation as a hard worker and consensus-builder while serving as the head of the comptroller commission that investigates allegations of government corruption.

Now he is drawing attention on the international stage.

US President Donald Trump promised to use the "full weight" of the US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela's democracy.

Associated Press

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