A leadership style that unites Venezuela

The swift rise of a young and unknown politician, Juan Guaidó, as interim president was as much a result of his own humility as of political forces. His style has united a splintered opposition.

AP
Juan Guaido, accompanied by his wife and daughter , listens to a reporter's question in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 31.

Less than a month ago, fewer than 3 percent of Venezuelans knew the name of Juan Guaidó. Yet in a matter of weeks, the first-term congressman and former industrial engineer has united a fractured opposition, been elected leader of the National Assembly, and become the constitutional leader of Venezuela.

Dozens of countries now recognize him as president instead of Nicolás Maduro, the man in the presidential palace who still wields power through a corrupt military but does not command legitimacy after a fraudulent reelection last year and the steady ruin of a once-wealthy economy.

And all of this was achieved by a man, the son of taxi driver, whose friends and associates describe as a humble servant and one who seeks reconciliation by peaceful, democratic means.

How did he do it?

Mr. Guaidó was given a leg up in becoming Assembly leader by his mentor, Leopoldo Lopez of the Popular Will party, who is being held as a political prisoner. Yet it is his humility that has given him the ability to unite an opposition splintered by tactics and egos. Given the tense crisis in Venezuela and the potential for violence, humility may be just the quality the opposition needs. As a young, fresh face with little hint of personal ambition, Guaidó has captured the loyalty of most Venezuelans. Nearly 90 percent of them reject Mr. Maduro’s rule.

Guaidó has grounded his claim to authority by holding town hall meetings across Venezuela, listening to people and encouraging them to engage in respectful dialogue and public reasoning. He rallies them by challenging the country’s mood of pessimism. “The freedom of our country can only be achieved if we overcome despair,” he says.

He has convinced many governments in Latin America and the West that the Constitution allows him to be the lawful president. And he has extended a forgiving hand, in the form of an offer of amnesty, to any military officer who switches sides.

Guaidó describes his swift ascendency by quoting Rómulo Betancourt, the father of the country’s democracy: “When Venezuela needed liberators, it did not import them, it gave birth to them.”

His political career began as a student leader opposing the late authoritarian president, Hugo Chávez. And as a legislator he focused his energy on investigating corruption. Now he is a leader at the center of a national struggle widely viewed as a global contest between the authoritarian model of governance and the democratic model.

His future remains uncertain but Guaidó at least may have established a new style of leadership in Latin America. It is a kind that leads by following the democratic aspirations of others. And if any virtue is required for such leadership, it is humility, or just what the friends of Guaidó ascribe to him.

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