Alejandro Castillo Powell
Naked Politics Blogger
You would be forgiven for not knowing who Juan Guaidó was up until the last couple of months, few people outside of Venezuela did. Guaidó is said to have first turned against the Chavez government after seeing its failure to deal effectively with the 1999 Vargas tragedy, when flash floods and debris flows killed tens of thousands of people and ruined thousands of homes.
His political activism started when he was 23 and helped establish the student-led movement, Movimiento Estudiantil, in 2007. The movement was aimed at the perceived increasing authoritarianism of the Chavez government and, along with growing discontent among the working classes, led to Chavez’s only defeat of his nine-year presidency when the president’s constitutional reforms were voted down in the 2007 referendum.
Guaidó’s first real foray into the world of professional politics was when he became one of the founding members of Leopoldo Lopez’s Popular Will party in 2009. The party was set up to oppose the apparent authoritarian policies of Chavez, identifying itself as social-democratic, and led by the popular figure of Lopez, a former mayor and vocal critic of Chavez, who has been under house arrest since August 2017.
Guaidó was elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly in full in 2015, and various publications have argued that his rise to the position of President of the National Assembly was orchestrated by anti-Maduro opposition leaders such as Julio Borges and the aforementioned, Leopoldo Lopez. After what he and others in the National Assembly viewed as a fraudulent election, Guaidó declared himself interim President on January 23 by citing article 233 of the constitution, which vests power in the President of the National Assembly if the President-elect is “absent” from office.
In this case, Guaidó and his colleagues argued that article 233 can be invoked because Maduro’s election was conducted fraudulently. However, Maduro and his government officials have labelled Guaidó’s actions as a “coup d’état” backed by the US Trump administration.
Over 50 states, including the US, the UK and most European nations have officially recognised Guaidó as the legitimate president, while Russia, China and 20 other states have spoken in favour of Maduro. The most important issues surrounding Guaidó now are what steps he will take to challenge Maduro and what direction Venezuela would take if the opposition were to succeed. In the short term, Guaidó has asked for humanitarian aid to be shipped in from the US as well as from the UN and has sought the support of the military by holding negotiations and offering amnesty to any military personnel who turn against Maduro. In the long term, according to Guaidó’s US envoy, Carlos Vecchio, he wants to open up the oil economy by allowing greater participation to foreign, private oil companies, dropping the current requirement that the state own at least 51% of the country’s oil shares.
Guaidó has recently come back to Venezuela from a continent-wide trip to rally support from nations such as Colombia, Brazil and Argentina. His latest plan to force US humanitarian aid into the country has largely proved unsuccessful, as Venezuelan armed forces have supposedly burned supply trucks as well as supposedly prevented aid from coming across the borders. However, the plan has also led to the defection of at least 270 soldiers, who fled to neighbouring Colombia – a blow to the morale of the Venezuelan military.
Guaidó has refused to rule out US military intervention, asking the international community, and specifically Washington, to keep “all options” open. Guaidó’s political position is mostly defined by his opposition to Maduro and support for a market economy, but his ideological motivations are still relatively unknown, with critics accusing him of being pro-US and right-wing, while colleagues describe him as a centrist.
Guaidó and his backers, Lopez and Borges, have support from the US administration – Lopez’s wife, Lilian Tintori, met with President Trump and Vice-President Pence back in 2017 at the White House, and Trump has called for Lopez’s release from prison. Nonetheless, it is still unclear if a Venezuela under Guaidó or Lopez would be characterised by the neo-liberal, US-dependent market economy that emerged across Latin America after the 1970s, or if the country would go in a completely different direction. What is clear is that Venezuela is close to breaking point and the 35-year-old Juan Guaidó could be the man to tip it over the edge.