Only a week ago, few outside of Venezuela knew of Juan Guaidó. But the 35-year-old industrial engineer has suddenly emerged as a cause celebre, heralded by global leaders for his challenge to the near-total power of President Nicolás Maduro.
Following May elections internationally derided as a fraudulent power grab, Maduro was sworn in for a new six-year term Thursday. One day later, Guaidó — the new head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly — took a step Venezuelan critics had long considered too dangerous: invoking articles in the constitution that allow the head of the assembly to assume national leadership if a “usurper” takes office.
In a socialist country buckling under the weight of corruption, mismanagement and hyperinflation that has left food and medicine scarce, Guaidó stopped short of declaring himself Venezuela’s interim president. But he appeared to energize the moribund opposition, emerging as a symbol of hope for Maduro’s detractors.
“We will oust Maduro and his gang from power,” Guaidó said recently. “We’re entering the most dangerous stage of our history.”
His comments were prescient. On Sunday, Guaidó was on his way to a rally just outside Caracas when he was intercepted by the intelligence police, forced into a van and detained for about 45 minutes. He was released unharmed, but his detention showed how dangerous his bid to oust Maduro has become. It also showed how quickly he had captured the public’s imagination: In just one day, he tripled his Twitter followers — from 100,000 to 334,000.
There are signs, however, that the government may tread more lightly with Guaidó than with other dissident politicians it has arrested, tortured or exiled. After Guaidó’s detention Sunday, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez told the media that the intelligence officers involved had acted on their own and would be fired, suggesting the government isn’t willing to risk jailing the leader for now.
Two journalists, CNN’s Osmary Hernández and Colombian Radio Caracol’s Beatriz Adrián were also briefly held by authorities while reporting on Guaidó’s detention. They were pushed by police, and Hernández was grabbed by her neck, the reporters said in telephone interviews.
“My friends, the game has changed now,” Guaidó said upon his release. “If they wanted to send us a message of intimidation, the answer is: We are not afraid.”
Guaidó’s Twitter bio describes him simply as a “public servant” who is “in love with Venezuela.” He has held one public post when he was elected legislator for the state of Vargas, in 2015. Before that, he was part of a student movement that protested then-President Hugo Chávez in 2007.
The son of a commercial pilot and teacher, Guaidó grew up in a middle-class family, one of eight children. His mentor, Leopoldo López, founded the Popular Will party in 2009 and led a wave of protests in 2014 before being jailed. He is still under house arrest.
“Obviously Guaidó is not the seasoned veteran that other politicians are, but that can actually work in his favor,” said David Smilde, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “He doesn’t have the old backdoor political culture, and he brings something different.”
Guaidó inherited the top post at the Popular Will party, partly because most of its leadership has been jailed or fled the country. On Jan. 5, he was named the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which maintains broad recognition internationally despite having been stripped of its powers by Maduro in 2017.
His detention followed arguably the most radical step the country’s opposition has taken since Maduro rose to power in 2013, succeeding the leftist firebrand Chávez, who died of cancer that year. Violent repression of protests in 2017 led to the deaths of more than 100 people. Since then, the opposition has fizzled.
Guaidó, however, appears to be gaining traction. Chile and Colombia expressed support for the National Assembly. The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, and Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, effectively recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, even though he has not yet claimed that mantle himself.
In a tweet Sunday, Vice President Pence and national security adviser John Bolton condemned Guaidó’s arrest and praised what they called his “courageous decision” to challenge the authority of Maduro, whom they denounced as “illegitimate.”
Although Maduro’s government could be severely damaged by further erosion of its relationship with Washington — including potential loss of its controlling rights over U.S.-based oil company Citgo — the United States also stands to lose. A complete severing of ties could pose new challenges for U.S. refineries designed to process Venezuela’s sludgelike heavy crude and could raise questions about the status of Washington’s embassy in Caracas.
“If the U.S. government recognizes Juan Guaidó as president, U.S. courts would see his government as the only one that can manage assets,” said Francisco Rodríguez, chief economist at the New York-based Torino Capital investment firm. “A parallel government could have significant economic power.”
The challenges for the current government are far from hypothetical. A group of bondholders said Friday that it would not negotiate impending payments with Maduro’s government because of its illegitimacy.
In a televised address last week, Maduro called Guaidó’s move “a show” and said a group of “little boys” had taken over the opposition. “This Guaidó, people will ask, who is that?”
Yet persecuting or jailing Guaidó risks turning him into a martyr.
If the government can discredit him “by simply ignoring or mocking him, that’s what they will likely do,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. “Either way, he’s going to have to have a strong countenance to fight against the regime.”
Despite Maduro’s taunts, Guaidó’s move appears to have pressured the Venezuelan leader into more outreach. “I would like to sit with the opposition and open a dialogue to end the diatribe, and the useless and unnecessary conflict,” Maduro said Saturday.
Guaidó is gambling on growing international criticism and a new round of street protests scheduled to start Jan. 23 to pressure the Maduro government to agree to new elections. But success would require a carefully crafted strategy and long-term cooperation among dissident factions — something the opposition has failed to achieve in the past.
The biggest challenge, though, could be the military. Thousands of the rank and file have deserted, and there are signs of internal divisions. But Maduro has used arrests and torture to weed out disloyalty, and experts say there is little outward sign that the armed forces may soon rebel against him.
“We pray for Maduro to step down and Guaidó to become president. We pray,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a 21-year-old university student who was waiting for the leader to speak Friday. “Our country can’t take it anymore. It has collapsed.”