Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Most Venezuelans had never heard of Guaidó – until President Nicolás Maduro’s intelligence agents dragged him from his car near Caracas last week and briefly detained him.
Guaidó (pronounced gweye-DOH) rallied his supporters after his release, telling them to march on the streets in protest on Wednesday, January 23 – the anniversary of the end of Venezuela’s last dictatorship in 1958 – “because the Constitution is on our side.”
That reference to Venezuela’s Constitution is exactly why Guaidó is suddenly a threat to Maduro and his authoritarian regime, which is responsible for Venezuela’s catastrophic economic collapse. On January 10th Maduro was re-inaugurated as President. But most constitutional experts say Maduro’s re-election last year was illegal. If so, technically Venezuela doesn’t have a president right now – and the interim president should be the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.
Meaning: Juan Guaidó. This month he became the president of the National Assembly – which keeps operating even though Maduro unconstitutionally dissolved it two years ago.
In his state-of-the-union speech last week, Maduro mocked Guaidó as “the man the U.S. is calling Venezuela’s new political boss.” But what worries Maduro more is that it’s not just los yanquis calling his presidency illegitimate. Most other Latin American countries – including neighboring Brazil and Colombia – as well as Canada and the E.U. no longer recognize Maduro as President. They now label his socialist regime a dictatorship.
(A motorist's video of Juan Guaido being taken from his car by state agents last week)
"That’s why the diaspora now has more hopes,” says Luis Gonzalez del Castillo, a leading political activist in the Venezuelan diaspora here in South Florida. “It’s very activated.”
By most accounts Gonzalez is right. The international snubbing of Maduro – and the popularity of Guaidó – have given both the exile community and the foundering opposition inside Venezuela a new vitality and momentum.
Gonzalez, a civil engineer who heads an exile political project called the Miranda Freedom Chair, recently fled Venezuela with his family because he says the police who arrested Guaidó last week had threatened him because of his work as an opposition organizer.
"The political police of the regime, with a gun, say, ‘Don’t continue to do that,’” he recalls. “They say, ‘Next time we are gonna kill you.’”
Or at least put him in prison, as has happened to so many opposition figures in recent years. And that’s the big question now regarding Guaidó: Will the regime imprison him – especially if he formally declares himself Venezuela’s real president?
So far Guaidó has not done that. But many in the opposition are urging him to – including exile leaders here like Gonzalez. They argue that that dramatic if symbolic move would embolden Venezuelans and the international community to take more forceful action against Maduro.
“Guaidó has to follow the Constitution and be the President,” says Gonzalez. “Then the countries of the world will know for certain and push the regime to leave power instantly.”
But many analysts inside Venezuela disagree.
“That’s really fantasyland,” says Phil Gunson, senior analyst in Venezuela for the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution NGO based in Brussels.
Gunson said he applauds Guaidó's "creative ambiguity" on the issue – keeping Maduro off balance – and he warns that if Guaidó does declare himself President, he may well be arrested or exiled. (On Monday the Supreme Court outlawed the National Assembly's activities.) That, Gunson says, "risks destroying what little is left of democratic space in Venezuela and what little is left of the power of the opposition. The opposition needs to build on this possibility of improved popularity.”
Which is why Gunson argues it’s better to have Guaidó on the streets instead of in jail – or in exile in Doral.
That’s especially true because, unlike many Venezuelan opposition leaders, Guaidó is relatively young (he’s 35) and hails from the working middle class coastal city of La Guaira instead of the elitist confines of the capital, Caracas.
"He looks more like the ordinary Venezuelan, he talks more like the ordinary Venezuelan,” says Gunson. “He’s definitely a very different kind of voice from the opposition than most people have been used to hearing.”
Exile leaders like Gonzalez say Guaidó could also mend the opposition’s nagging internal divisions: “Guaidó is a danger to Maduro because he is the answer [to] the necessity of [having] one voice.”
Most of the international community is urging Maduro to restore the National Assembly Guaidó heads and let it call a new, legitimate presidential election. Over the weekend, Guaidó said a new government would offer amnesty to military officers who abandon Maduro’s regime – and on Monday that regime had to put down a brief uprising by mutinous national guardsmen.
But in an interview last week in Caracas with Miami journalist Maria Elvira Salazar on Univision 23, Maduro was defiant.
“I’m confident I’m on the right side of history,” he said, insisting the constitutional clamor was simply pretext for a U.S. invasion of Venezuela.
At the same time, Maduro called for dialogue with President Trump.
That, however, is most likely Maduro’s fantasyland.