In Depth

Juan Guaido - Venezuela’s salvation or the great pretender?

President Nicolas Maduro says he has quelled alleged ‘coup’ by the opposition leader

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro claims his forces have defeated an alleged coup attempt led by opposition leader Juan Guiado.

According to Al Jazeera, hundreds of Venezuelans rallied in the streets of the capital Caracas on Tuesday afternoon after Guaido called for a “military uprising”, in what the news organisation says is his “strongest move” yet to take down the disputed leader.

Guaido has been backed by a number of foreign governments since declaring himself interim president earlier this year, and this week called on Venezuela’s military to support the “final phase” of his campaign to oust Maduro.

But following a day “punctured by violent exchanges”, Maduro announced that the “coup-mongering far-right” had been quelled, The Independent report.

“They failed in their plan. They failed in their call, because the people of Venezuela want peace,” Maduro said in a televised address. “We will continue to emerge victorious… in the months and years ahead. I have no doubt about it.”

But a defiant Guaido has called for more mass protests to remove Maduro from power, and has repeated his plea for the military to back his “Operation Freedom”.

“Over the expanse and length of Venezuela, we will be in the streets. We will see you all in the streets. That is our territory,” the opposition chief said.

A highly controversial figure, Guaido is both loved and loathed in Venezuela. But who is the self-declared “acting president” of the country and how did he rise to lead the charge against Maduro?

Who is Juan Guaido?

Guaido, 35, was born in the port city of La Guaira in 1983 and “cut his political teeth during 2007 student protests against Maduro’s late predecessor Hugo Chavez”, The Guardian says.

A former industrial engineer, Guaido served one term as a lawmaker for the centre-left Popular Will party, and became head of the opposition-held National Assembly at the start of 2019, Time reports. 

Although Maduro stripped the parliament of its powers in 2017, it “still meets and is recognised by most countries”, says the magazine.

Guaido’s election as leader of the assembly “re-energised those unhappy with Maduro’s rule in a country crippled by a severe economic crisis”, adds the BBC.

The broadcaster notes that Guaido’s youth and background - hailing from one of Venezuela’s poorest states - means the government “has struggled to paint him as a member of the country’s elite”, against whom Maduro regularly directs his wrath.

What does he want?

“Few outside or inside of Venezuela had heard of Juan Guaido” until 2018, when he made headlines in the wake of the presidential election, says Time. Maduro was re-elected but international observers, including the US and EU, quickly declared the vote fraudulent.

Following Maduro’s inauguration, in January 2019, Guaido used a clause in Venezuela’s Constitution to declare himself president. According to the document, the leader of the National Assembly automatically becomes president in the event of a “vacuum of power” within the country, a situation he claimed had been brought about by the allegedly rigged election.

“We will stay in the streets until we have freedom for Venezuela,” Guaido told his supporters. “We will fight back until we have democracy.”

His announcement won support from the members of the Organization of American States, along with the US and a number of EU countries, who recognised him as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

Responding to Guaido’s calls this week for an uprising, US Vice President Mike Pence reiterated the Trump administration’s support, tweeting: “We are with you!”

However, when it comes to policies, Guaido has been accused of vagueness and lack of conviction.

Fox News, which takes a strong anti-Maduro stance, says that Guaido’s policies include “facilitating new elections, taking steps to restore the country’s ailing economy, and distributing aid”, but does not specify how that might be achieved.

The BBC says that while Guaido has dismissed Maduro as a “usurper” of power in the past, the opposition leader has given “little indication of his vision for Venezuela” beyond his support for the Popular Will party’s policies of a market economy and greater powers for regional governments.

What will happen next?

Some observers suggested that a major coup was taking place following Guaido’s call to arms on Tuesday. But within hours, news outlets including Bloomberg were reporting that Guaido’s efforts had simply “fizzled”, amid claims that he should have won more public support before launching his uprising.

“Even though the opposition went out and did everything possible, it doesn’t have enough popular support,” said Javier Buenrostro, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “The support it has doesn’t match the size of the action. The reaction does not make the government shake.”

Maduro blamed the alleged coup attempt on “the obsessive efforts of the Venezuelan right, the Colombian oligarchy and the US empire”.

However, while the uprising appears to have failed, the attempt alone “could lead to a different kind of dialogue”, Venezuelan political analyst Carlos Pina told Al Jazeera, adding that Maduro’s regime will “not be able to maintain the same strategy that it has carried out so far towards Guaido and his followers”.

The opposition leader may face serious repercussions in the meantime, however.

“[Prosecutors] will launch criminal prosecutions for the serious crimes that have been committed against the Constitution, the rule of law and the right to peace,” Maduro said in his “victory” speech this week.

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