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LATIN AMERICA | 26-01-2019 08:09

Juan Guaidó leaps from back-bench to centre stage with bold declaration

The rise of Juan Guaidó from backbench obscurity to the self-declared interim president of Venezuela in just three weeks has been meteoric – and by his own recognition risky.

The rise of Juan Guaidó from backbench obscurity to the self-declared interim president of Venezuela in just three weeks has been meteoric – and by his own recognition risky.

Few Venezuelans had even heard of the fresh-faced, 35-year-old lawmaker when he was plucked from anonymity and named as speaker of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in early January. The move set up a highstakes stand-off with President Nicolás Maduro, who is increasingly seen as a dictator both at home and abroad.

Instead of backing down, Guaidó stunned Venezuelans on Wednesday by declaring himself interim president before cheering supporters in Venezuela’s capital, buoyed by massive anti-government protests. And support from US President Donald Trump, Canada, Argentina and numerous other Latin American countries, along with the Organisation of American States, immediately rolled in.

But even as he was symbolically sworn in, he foretold of dangers, telling supporters: “We know that this will have consequences.” Moments later he slipped away to an unknown location amid speculation he would soon be arrested.

Last week, Venezuela’s feared SEBIN intelligence police pulled Guaidó from his vehicle as he headed to a town hall meeting and briefly detained him. And the rival Constituent Assembly controlled by Maduro’s allies threatened Guaidó and others with an investigation for treason.

TIMING AND BACKING

Key to Guaidó’s rise to prominence has been timing – and behind-the-scenes backing. As Venezuela’s economic crisis deepens, with masses fleeing the country to escape runaway inflation on pace to surpass 23 million percent, many are desperate for a new leader to rescue the once-wealthy oil nation. Into that void stepped Guaidó.

An industrial engineer who cut his political teeth in a student protest movement a decade ago, he was elected to the National Assembly in 2015, and in its first session this year was named its leader.

At the time, Maduro made light of his newcomer status, feigning confusion over whether his name was “Guaidó” or “Guaire,” a notoriously polluted river that runs through Caracas.

But following Wednesday’s presidential self-declaration, and a US-led chorus of Western hemisphere nations backing his challenge, Maduro responded with fury, swiftly cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States and giving its diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

The architect of Guaidó’s meteoric rise is said to be Leopoldo López, Venezuela’s most popular opposition leader, who is muzzled under house arrest and considered by government opponents to be a political prisoner.

At a time when many had written off the National Assembly, which was stripped of its last bit of power in 2017, López manoeuvred behind the scenes for his Popular Will (Voluntad Popular) party to assume the presidency of the gutted legislature.

He then tapped Guaidó, serving his first full term as a lawmaker, who rose to the helm of their party in Venezuela after eight more senior politicians sitting on Popular Will’s national board were exiled since 2014.

Guaidó has been a loyal acolyte of López for years, standing beside him at a 2014 press conference when the activist announced a strategy of antiMaduro unrest. What was called ‘La Salida’ (“The Exit”) bitterly divided the opposition because it came less than a year into Maduro’s presidency, when support for his rule was still strong.

The two talk a half-dozen times each day, and not a single speech or move isn’t coordinated with López first, said one ally, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis, said that Guaidó was so unknown that he hadn’t even measured his approval ratings, like he does numerous other politicians. But he plans to start doing so this week.

VISION?

Critics say Guaidó lacks a political vision, pointing to his rambling debut speech as the legislature’s speaker, which was full of rhetorical barbs aimed at the “usurper” Maduro but short on specifics on how to get out of the malaise.

Still, others see his youth and relative inexperience as breathing life into the beaten-down opposition, making Maduro’s frequent diatribes that it is dominated by elitist relics from Venezuela’s pre-revolutionary past harder to stick.

Guaidó told The Associated Press in a recent interview he doesn’t fear running into the same fate as his political allies. He pointed to scars on his neck caused by rubber bullets fired during 2017 street demonstrations against Maduro. “I still have projectiles lodged here,” he said.

Guaidó has endured hardships for much of his life too. At age 15, shortly after Maduro’s mentor, the late Hugo Chávez, assumed the presidency and ushered in a socialist overhaul, Guaidó and his family survived a torrential mudslide that killed thousands and left many more homeless in the port city of La Guaira, a short distance from Caracas.

“We are survivors,” he said. “If they take Juan Guaidó prisoner, someone else will emerge, because our generation won’t give up.” Like López, the wiry Guaidó prides himself as an athlete and is a devotee of his hometown’s Sharks — a perennial loser in the Venezuelan baseball league. He and his wife, a fellow activist, have a daughter named for Francisco de Miranda, a precursor to Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. While in the National Assembly, Guaidó earned a reputation as a hard worker and consensus-builder while serving as the head of the comptroller commission that investigates allegations of government corruption.

Now he is drawing attention on the international stage.

“The Constitution gives me the legitimacy to carry the burden of the presidency over the country to call elections,” Guaidó said last week. “But I need backing from the citizens to make it a reality.”

by BY FABIOLA SÁNCHEZ & SCOTT SMITH

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