Exclusive: self-declared interim president tells the Guardian he is set on forcing out Nicolás Maduro
The opposition leader who last week declared himself Venezuela’s rightful interim president has played down fears of a possible armed conflict and claimed his economically devastated nation was living through an “almost magical moment” in its newly revived quest for democracy.
In one of his first interviews since last Wednesday’s surprise move, Juan Guaidó told the Guardian he was set on “getting the job done” to force Nicolás Maduro from power and ending a humanitarian emergency which has fuelled the largest exodus in modern Latin American history.
Guaidó said a combination of international backing, opposition unity and a reinvigorated grassroots support meant Venezuela now had a unique chance “to leave the chaos behind”.
He also announced on Sunday that he will step up his push for power by holding rallies on Wednesday and another on Saturday, when the ultimatum from leading European countries is set to expire.
“Frustration has turned to hope. People are daring to dream again … we have awoken from a nightmare to have new dreams, to dream of the future, to dream of our country, [to dream] not of what we were, but of what we can become,” said the 35-year-old politician.
For all the optimism, questions have been raised about the bedfellows Guaidó has chosen in what he calls his bid to rescue Venezuela. His main international backer is Donald Trump, who on Friday named a neoconservative, notorious for helping organise the covert financing of Contra rebels in Nicaragua, as his special envoy to Venezuela. Another key regional supporter is Brazil’s far-right firebrand president, Jair Bolsonaro, known for his hostility to human rights and his fondness for dictatorship.
A little-known opposition lawmaker until the start of this year, Guaidó has been thrust into the eye of a growing domestic and geopolitical storm by his decision to declare himself Venezuela’s legitimate interim president last Wednesday.
He based that claim on Maduro’s alleged “usurpation” of power through last year’s election and an article of Venezuela’s constitution he argues permits him to claim temporary leadership if the presidency is left “vacant”.
That unprecedented challenge to Maduro – who was first elected after the 2013 death of Hugo Chávez and re-elected last May in a vote widely seen as fraudulent – was endorsed by a succession of governments including those of the United States, Brazil, Canada and Colombia, although China and Russia continue to back Maduro.
At a specially convened meeting of the UN security council on Saturday, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, urged members to rally behind Guaidó. “Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem,” Pompeo said.
Britain, France, Germany and Spain say they will recognise Guaidó as interim president unless fresh elections are called within eight days, with the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on Saturday calling for “a new start for the suffering [people] of Venezuela”.
In an interview with CNN Türk on Sunday, Maduro rejected those demands: “No one can give us an ultimatum … Venezuela is not tied to Europe. This is complete insolence.”
In an apparent attempt to project indifference to Venezuela’s latest political convulsion, Maduro also tweeted a video of himself dancing to regional joropo music with the first lady, Cilia Flores. “Nothing can stop us!” he wrote.
Guaidó admitted that while international support was growing, his movement to unseat Maduro still lacked crucial backing from Venezuela’s military. Last week Venezuela’s defence minister slammed what he called Guaidó’s shameful “criminal plan” to destabilise Venezuela and pledged loyalty to Maduro.
The opposition leader pointed to the defection of Venezuela’s top military envoy to the US on Saturday and the discharge of 3,600 military officials since last year as proof support was “emerging” within the armed forces. “But we have yet to consolidate these [gains] in order for us to really be able to execute the process that will lead us to a transitional government and, ultimately, to fresh elections,” Guaidó conceded.
Some observers worry the intensifying political crisis has the potential to spark a civil war, if different military factions back different leaders.
“I am worried about a country that can fragment under different chieftains and warlords and generals and narco-traffickers [and guerrilla groups] and … Venezuela becoming like a tapestry of different power centres,” the country’s former trade minister, Moisés Naím, told the Guardian last week.
But Guaidó tried to soothe fears of conflict. “I don’t think we will reach that point. The idea is to increase pressure,” he said.
Fresh anti-Maduro demonstrations have been called for this week and Guaidó said he hoped marchers would not be met with deadly repression, as happened during the last major round of demonstrations in 2017. “This is no time for more deaths or more sacrifices.” Human rights groups report that at least 26 people have been killed since the latest phase of protests began last week.
Guaidó said he felt confident about the future and urged Venezuelans to trust the country was turning a corner. “There are risks … but there will be bigger rewards.
“Everywhere I turn I get a smile … we all know that the situation is dire but regardless of this I have received encouragement. It’s been great to see a newfound hope,” he added.
“I’ve been getting calls from childhood friends who left the country and who tell me they finally have hope that they will return, and they tell me they will use everything they have learned living abroad to rebuild the country.”
However, concerns over Guaidó’s international backers – particularly in Brazil and the US – remain.
Following Bolsonaro’s election last October, Guaidó, a member of the centrist Voluntad Popular party, praised what he called Bolsonaro’s “commitment to and for democracy [and] human rights”.
Latin America specialist Miguel Tinker Salas said it was “astounding” to see Bolsonaro and Trump painting themselves as advocates of “democracy and fair play in Venezuela”.
“The US has no moral standing on these issues and neither does Bolsonaro and Brazil,” said Salas, a signatory of an open letter attacking what it branded a US attempt to topple Maduro.
Guaidó, who rejects claims that he is a pawn in a US-backed coup attempt, said his immediate priority – apart from securing a peaceful political transition – was addressing Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis: “Our focus is helping people.”
Another prime concern was rescuing Venezuela’s once-great oil giant, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), which oversees the world’s biggest crude reserves but whose production has collapsed under Maduro. “PDVSA is in a state of emergency,” Guaidó said.
Once “the usurper” (Maduro) was gone, Guaidó said free elections needed to be held “as soon as possible” after political prisoners had been freed and members of Venezuela’s swelling diaspora could all be registered.
“That takes time but we need to take care of these [things] in the shortest period of time,” he said.