Who Is Venezuela’s Juan Guaid贸?

In less than a month, Juan Guaid贸 has risen from obscure, junior lawmaker to self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela and the most serious threat yet to the authoritarian government of Nicol谩s Maduro.

Guaid贸, who defied Maduro by taking the oath of office on Wednesday, claims to lead a transitional government that will call free elections and return Venezuela to democracy. The 35-year-old was immediately recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States, Canada and most Latin American nations and received widespread support from European countries.

In a speech Friday to cheering supporters at an outdoor plaza in Caracas, Guaid贸 proclaimed: “We have awakened from the nightmare, brothers and sisters.”

Maduro, who has led Venezuela into food shortages, hyperinflation and political repression during six years in office, is refusing to budge. His ruling Socialist party controls nearly all government institutions. On Thursday, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino L贸pez declared that the nation’s powerful armed forces 鈥 widely considered to be propping up the government 鈥 recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s true president.

But at least for now, Guaid贸 is breathing new life into an opposition movement that had been deeply demoralized by internal power struggles and government repression.

“Thirty days ago, the opposition was demobilized and fractured with no leadership,” said Michael Penfold, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “But that’s not the case anymore. Guaid贸 represents a sparkle of hope.”

“I think Guaid贸 is delivering exactly what the opposition wanted at this point, which is a bold, risk-taking response,” said Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert and professor of political science at Amherst College.

A youthful-looking industrial engineer, Guaid贸, got his start in politics by organizing student protests against the late Hugo Ch谩vez, who ushered in Venezuela’s socialist revolution two decades ago. In 2013, Ch谩vez died of cancer and was succeeded by Maduro.

As a member of the Popular Will party, Guaid贸 in 2015 won a seat to the National Assembly 鈥 Venezuela’s legislature 鈥 amid an opposition sweep of congressional elections. But that momentum quickly stalled.

Anti-government demonstrations were crushed by security forces while an effort to remove Maduro through a recall election was vetoed by the government. The opposition’s most charismatic leaders were arrested, forced into exile or stripped of their right to run for public office. Last year, Maduro won another six-year term in a presidential election widely considered a sham by international observers.

Still, the opposition was determined to challenge Maduro’s grip on power. It hatched an audacious plan to coincide with the start this month of what many view as Maduro’s illegitimate second term. Guaid贸 became its leader.

Partly because more prominent politicians have been sidelined, the National Assembly in early January named Guaid贸 as its president. Venezuela’s constitution states that the head of the National Assembly takes over should the presidency become vacant, as the opposition claims it has under Maduro.

After consulting with U.S. and Latin American officials, according to the Associated Press, the opposition organized nationwide street marches on Wednesday and held a make-shift outdoor ceremony where Guaid贸 took the oath of office and launched his parallel government.

In what amounted to his inaugural speech, Guaid贸 called on military officers to withdraw their support from Maduro.

“It has to be the Venezuelan people, the armed forces, and the international community that allow us to assume power, which we will not let slip away,” Guaid贸 told cheering supporters in what amounted to his inaugural address.

At least one high-ranking military official, Col. Jos茅 Luis Silva, who serves as military attach茅 at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, has heeded Guaid贸’s call. “As the Venezuelan defense attach茅 in the United States, I do not recognize Mr. Nicol谩s Maduro as president of Venezuela,” Silva said in an interview Saturday with el Nuevo Herald.

Guaid贸 lacks any control over government ministries but he is more than just a figurehead. Analysts say that swelling international support for him, coupled with Maduro’s diplomatic isolation, strengthens Guaid贸’s claim to the presidency.

Frank Mora, who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, said Guaid贸’s swearing-in ceremony could become a watershed moment, similar to the 2010 episode in Tunisia when an angry fruit vender set himself on fire and helped ignite the Arab Spring.

Alternative leadership in Caracas has also opened the door for the Trump administration to squeeze the vital flow of petrodollars to the Maduro government 鈥 which counts on oil for 95 percent of its export earnings.

One option would be to send the proceeds from purchases of Venezuelan oil to foreign accounts that could be set up and controlled by Guaid贸’s governing team, said Francisco Rodr铆guez, a former economic advisor to Venezuela’s National Assembly. He said that diverting oil funds to Guaid贸 would have a “huge impact” on the Venezuelan economy and put more pressure on Maduro to leave office.

“The pieces are starting to fit together for a peaceful transition in Venezuela,” said Benjamin Scharifker, a leading Venezuelan intellectual and an opposition activist.

But Guaid贸 also faces new risks.

Earlier this month, he was briefly detained by security forces and fears are growing that he could be arrested. At Friday’s rally, Guaid贸 acknowledged that possibility but told supporters that if he were ever kidnapped, they should press ahead with nonviolent protests.

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