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Task for Venezuela's new 'president': make it more than a title

Why We Wrote This

For years, people inside and outside Venezuela have debated how to halt its spiraling crises. Will a young politician declaring himself acting president prove the answer, or a high-stakes complication?

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
Juan Guaidó, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, held a copy of the Venezuelan Constitution during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23. Mr. Guaidó swore himself in as acting president, rejecting Mr. Maduro's widely disputed reelection, and was recognized as interim president by the US.

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Who is Juan Guaidó? That was a common question Wednesday, when the young, little-known opposition politician declared himself acting president of Venezuela. Mr. Guaidó, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly, rejects the results of Nicolás Maduro’s widely disputed reelection in May. Since then, he argues, Venezuela has lacked a president – and it’s his job to step in. Guaidó has been able to unify a long-splintered opposition, thanks in part to his youth, middle-class background and closeness to Leopoldo López, an influential opposition leader now under house arrest. But a confluence of events have laid the groundwork for someone to finally challenge Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy – from citizens’ severe struggles with inflation and shortages, to Venezuela’s increasing isolation on the international stage. Other countries in the Western Hemisphere quickly rallied behind Guaidó. But top of mind is where Venezuela’s armed forces will fall, and whether the country will be caught with two parallel governments. “No one wants to be the first to jump” away from Maduro, says Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan journalist.

Juan Guaidó, leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly and until last week a relative unknown, stood in front of hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters Wednesday to swear in Venezuela’s new president: himself.

Mr. Guaidó argues that Venezuela’s presidential election last year wasn’t valid, unrecognized by many nations, so his country is now without a president. It’s the job of the National Assembly to appoint an acting president and hold a new vote when that’s the case, according to the Constitution.

The interim presidency was quickly recognized by the United States, and later backed by a growing list of nations including Canada, Colombia, Brazil, and Chile. Nicolás Maduro, who was sworn in for his second presidential term earlier this month despite his widely disputed May victory, responded by ending diplomatic relations with the US.

Venezuela has suffered a pile-up of political, economic, and humanitarian crises in recent years, inducing hyperinflation and severe shortages. An estimated 3 million people have fled the country. Guaidó called for nationwide protests Jan. 23, marking the 61st anniversary of Venezuelan democracy. It wasn’t the first time Maduro has faced vocal opposition. Guaidó’s unifying message for the opposition has ushered Venezuela to this moment. But a confluence of events – including citizens’ struggles, protests in former government strongholds, lagging oil production, and increasing international isolation – have laid the groundwork for someone like him to challenge Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy.

“Everything synced in place for this to happen,” says Guillermo Zubillaga, head of the Venezuela Working Group at the America’s Society/Council of the Americas. “The crisis is a driver and an impetus for everyone to want something different: hyperinflation makes salaries worthless in a week, people are cooking with wood, and the trash isn’t collected,” he says.

Now that the international community has overwhelmingly rallied behind Guaidó, the question is what Maduro – and perhaps more important the armed forces – will do next. From sham elections to a 2017 attempt to dissolve the National Assembly, the only opposition-run branch of the government, Maduro has aimed to consolidate his grip on power. Top of mind now is where the armed forces, who were deeply loyal to Maduro’s predecessor, will fall: Splitting their support between two self-declared leaders, desert the shell of the project once known as 21st Century Socialism, or step in line behind Maduro.

Who is Juan Guaidó?

Opposition leaders have for decades been their own worst enemies when it comes to winning over the public. Aside from the 2015 National Assembly elections, which gave the opposition majority control, the opposition has largely been defined by its infighting, and its upper-class leaders’ failure to connect with Venezuelan voters.

Guaidó doesn’t fit that mold. He grew up in a large, middle-class family from coastal Vargas state. In 1999, the same year Hugo Chávez became president, his family survived one of the worst natural disasters in Venezuela’s recent history: a mudslide that killed thousands, and left countless others homeless.

Those who know Guaidó well say the landslides marked his life and gave him a sense of social responsibility. The 35-year-old industrial engineer graduated from Andrés Bello Catholic University, where he was part of a student movement protesting then-President Chávez in 2007. At the end of 2006, Chávez had ordered the closure of one of the most important television stations in the country, and called for a referendum to change the constitution and allow for unlimited reelection. It was his first and only electoral defeat in what would become a 14-year presidency.

“Juan was one of the main organizers [of the student protests],” says a former engineering classmate, who requested anonymity for his personal security. “That awoke his political conscience. He was always thinking about helping,” he says, describing Guaidó as honest and methodical. “As a good engineer, he always seeks to improve the process.”

During his foray into student politics, he fell in with opposition leader Leopoldo López, a large part of why he was picked to lead the National Assembly this year. 

“I don’t know how to say this politely, but [Guaidó] is where he is because he is Leopoldo López’s guy in liberty,” says Francisco Toro, a Venezuelan journalist and founder of the Caracas Chronicles. Mr. Lopez was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison in 2015 and has been under house arrest for the past nearly two years.

“He doesn’t do much that [Lopez] doesn’t agree with,” Mr. Toro says. “On the other hand, he’s a talented young guy, dynamic, and handling himself well.”

Aside from his family’s socioeconomic background, Guaidó has another key thing going for him: his age. He was a young teen when Chávez came to power, which makes it harder to peg him as part of the old guard blamed for the extreme inequality that helped thrust Chávez to power in the first place. He was also too young to play a part in the 2002 coup attempt and other events that long tarnished politicians looking to defeat Chavismo.

“He really carries no baggage that could discredit a politician,” says Mr. Zubillaga, and has a unifying “message of peaceful transition.” He’s talked about allowing for humanitarian aid to start entering the country, called for fresh elections within two months, and he’s offered amnesty to the military, another key group he’s appealed to via his own family’s military past.

Last year, Venezuela’s opposition was so decimated that few believed anyone could revitalize its image. The splintered parties allowed Maduro to run essentially unopposed, with part of the opposition sitting the election out and another portion putting forth a candidate at the last moment.

“We were living a period of low credibility and lots of internal conflicts,” says Freddy Guevara, the former vice president of the National Assembly, who is currently exiled in the Chilean embassy in Caracas.

One country, two presidents?

Guaidó’s offering a “breath of fresh air” to the opposition, Mr. Guevara says. To the international community, his movement also presents an opportunity to do something about the increasingly dire economic and humanitarian situation in recent years.

From neighboring nations dealing with the brunt of the Venezuelan exodus, to the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil (the US), the global community jumped at the opportunity to back Guaidó’s announcement. For years, outside players have vacillated between issuing harshly worded statements against government repression or encouraging dialogue, hands tied by the overwhelming anti-interventionist tendencies in the region.

The White House said its decision to back Guaidó was based on the Inter-American Democratic Charter that all Western Hemisphere nations other than Cuba signed on to in 2001. In a press briefing it said the US has only begun to “scratch the surface” of economic measures it could use to pressure Maduro into accepting a democratic transition.

Venezuela could find itself with two parallel governments – one run by the opposition and recognized internationally, but without control over state functions. 

A lot now comes down to key players like the military – and which leader they choose to back.

Maduro’s defense minister Vladimir Padrino López tweeted a rejection of Guaidó’s maneuver yesterday, but stopped short of overtly backing Maduro.

“The soldiers of this nation won’t accept a president imposed in the shadows or self-proclaimed unlawfully. The National Armed Forces defend the constitution and guarantee national sovereignty,” he tweeted.

“No one wants to be the first to jump” away from Maduro, says Toro. “The troops and midranking officers, of course they want to jump, they just don’t want to go to jail for it,” he says of soldiers’ disenchantment with the status quo. One of the worst-case scenarios Toro envisions is the possibility that only “part of the armed forces will jump – that’s how civil wars start,” he says.

On Wednesday, seas of Venezuelans decked out in the yellow, blue, and red of the flag filled city streets across the country at Guaidó’s behest. Hands waved in the air as their new interim leader raised his own to be sworn in. “We have a new president! We have a new president!” people shouted immediately. Videos of tearful reactions of Venezuelans abroad spread quickly across social media.

“I’m so glad I never gave up on Venezuela,” says Maria José Vicentini, a retiree in the Caracas crowd. “Now, I can really see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Howard LaFranchi contributed reporting from Washington.

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