CARACAS, Venezuela — A group of soldiers turned against the government and declared allegiance to the opposition. Foreign officials say the government could soon run out of money to meet bare-bones needs. And countries across the region have called the president an illegitimate dictator.
Conditions in Venezuela have deteriorated to a point where the opposition — gutted by the jailing and exiling of many of its leaders and discredited after several failed efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro — is seeing an opportunity. Leading them is a virtually unheard-of 35-year-old, Juan Guaidó.
His debut as opposition leader and head of the National Assembly this month has captured the attention of those within the country and outside of it — mainly for his striking claim that Mr. Maduro is not a legitimate ruler and his willingness to take charge of a transitional government.
“The relationship between Venezuela and its state today is one of terror,” Mr. Guaidó said in an interview. “When this happens, the voices and hopes of the world, their messages, are the encouragement for the daily struggle to resist — to dream of democracy, and for a better country.”
Wednesday marks the biggest gambit yet for the young leader. He has called on Venezuelans to take to the streets to protest the government. If they heed his call, this would be the first mass mobilization in the country since a bloody crackdown against demonstrators in 2017 left more than 100 people dead in clashes with security forces, according to the United Nations.
“He’s breathed new life into the opposition,” said David Smilde, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “The opposition has finally put forward a fresh face that has courage, new ideas and leadership skills that has started to revive them.”
Already, some in the military have taken up Mr. Guaidó’s call, staging a brief act of resistance at a military base in Caracas, which was followed by violent protests after it was put down.
Mr. Maduro called the opposition a bunch of “little boys,” saying they were pawns of the Trump administration. María Iris Varela Rangel, a top politician in Maduro’s party, wrote on Twitter: “Guaidó: I have already gotten your jail cell ready with the right uniform, and I hope you name your cabinet quickly to know who will keep you company, you stupid kid.”
Mr. Guaidó’s challenge to Mr. Maduro comes at a time when his presidency faces mounting challenges of legitimacy. On Jan. 10, the president was sworn in for a second six-year term after a disputed election in May that many countries did not recognize.
Mr. Maduro’s leftist government, which faces sanctions from countries including the United States, is now surrounded by right-wing leaders in Colombia and Brazil. At home, hyperinflation led the president to instate a new currency, which in recent months has been losing value as well. More than three million Venezuelans have fled the country for lack of food and medicine.
Yet if Mr. Maduro has been unpopular, the opposition has been almost equally imperiled during the crisis.
Since 2017, the National Assembly has been effectively sidelined by a new legislative body created under Mr. Maduro and packed with his supporters. Last year the opposition was so divided over how to confront the president that two parties broke with a boycott to participate in the elections while the rest sat it out.
“People have been frustrated with the opposition, and tired of the same old faces of the politicians of the old establishment that have failed,” said Margarita López Maya, a retired political scientist in Caracas who taught at the Central University of Venezuela.
Mr. Guaidó’s rise may mark the opposition’s last, best chance to revive itself, many believe.
“He’s a hard worker, he’s humble and he can unite us,” said Lilian Tintori, whose husband, Leopoldo López, is Venezuela’s most well-known political prisoner and Mr. Guaidó’s mentor. “But the risk for him is enormous. They may do the same to Juan as they did to Leopoldo, to put him in jail.”
Mr. Guaidó was already briefly detained by masked members of Venezuela’s intelligence service on Jan. 13, two days after declaring his intent to oust Mr. Maduro from power. Accounts differ on the nature of the arrest: The government said he had been detained by rogue officials who were later disciplined, while Mr. Guaidó maintained the agents who detained him had seemed sympathetic to the opposition.
Foreign officials, particularly in the United States, who want to see a transitional government in Venezuela, say they saw in Mr. Guaidó a fresh-faced leader from humble origins who contrasted with previous opposition leaders, whom Mr. Maduro disparaged as oligarchs and right-wing extremists.
While the United States has not recognized Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader, in recent days senior American officials have denounced Mr. Maduro as a dictator and made clear their support for Mr. Guaidó’s effort to oust Mr. Maduro and set up a transitional government. Last year, Trump administration officials met in secret with rebellious members of the military to discuss their plans to overthrow Mr. Maduro.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke directly to the Venezuelan people in a video released on YouTube and Twitter on Tuesday, calling Mr. Maduro a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power.” Mr. Pence said he recognized the National Assembly, led by Mr. Guaidó, as “the last vestige of democracy in your country,” and stated that, “we are with you, we stand with you, and we will stay with you until democracy is restored and you reclaim your birthright of libertad.”
The opposition has used this show of support to urge people to take to the streets on Wednesday.
Ahead of the planned protests, opposition leaders feel buoyed by the large crowds that have already arrived at town hall meetings along with numerous street protests this week. High-profile military defections to their side could mark a point of no return in their bid to oust Mr. Maduro.
But a new crackdown on demonstrations and a wave of arrests targeting opposition leaders — including Mr. Guaidó — are also plausible.
It’s also possible Venezuelans, still soured on opposition leaders or simply fearing a government crackdown, do not rise in large numbers to Mr. Guaidó’s call to protest.
With a tall, wiry frame and a penchant for dancing in public and speaking outdoors, Mr. Guaidó became politically active as a student leader in Caracas. There he headed protests against then-president Hugo Chávez after Venezuela’s oldest broadcaster was closed, part of broader efforts to muzzle the press.
After college, Mr. Guaidó, who had studied engineering, was offered a job in the private sector that would have taken him to Mexico, said Juan Carlos Michinel, a friend. He didn’t accept the position.
“He wanted to start change here,” said Mr. Michinel. “He decided to stay here in Venezuela.”
Voluntad Popular, Mr. Guaidó’s party, is one of the more hard-line of the opposition’s parties, favoring marches against Mr. Maduro in the streets. Mr. López, the jailed mentor of Mr. Guaidó, was sentenced to more than 13 years in prison after leading street protests in 2014 to challenge Mr. Maduro.
Mr. Guaidó’s ascendance as the face of the opposition could herald a new, more confrontational stance with the government, where the military will be actively courted as allies, said Ms. Tintori.
“We don’t have arms so we need the military,” she said.
Reached after Mr. Guaidó’s brief detention by the government last week, Norka del Valle Márquez, Mr. Guaidó’s mother, said her son’s entry into politics at such a critical juncture in the country’s history has left her nervous about his well being and that of his opposition colleagues.
“Do you ask me if I’m scared? Of course,” she said. But she added that he has worked hard for this moment.
“It’s been years of struggle for Juan,” she said. “He’s never wanted to leave this country. He is rooted to his land.”
Orignially published in NYT.