THE CROWD urged him on. “Swear in! Swear in!” they chanted. And then he did. Juan Guaidó, the gangly 35-year-old politician—unknown to most Venezuelans a month ago—raised his right hand and declared himself acting president of the republic. Tens of thousands of people, gathered in Caracas on January 23rd as part of a national demonstration against the disastrous regime of Nicolás Maduro, now deemed a usurper, let out a raucous cheer.
By the end of the afternoon, the man Mr Maduro and his cronies have tried to dismiss as a “little boy” had been recognised internationally as the legitimate leader of a country with some of the world’s largest oil reserves. President Donald Trump was the first to endorse him; Canada and all the major economies in South America followed.
Mr Guaidó’s rise to prominence has been spectacular. On January 5th he was chosen as head of Venezuela’s national assembly as part of a power-sharing agreement between the main opposition parties. He seemed almost the accidental president, selected largely owing to the lack of other options. Of the two more obvious candidates in his party, Voluntad Popular, one is under house arrest and the other has taken refuge in the Chilean embassy. The assembly has been defunct since 2016. After the opposition won a majority in the chamber in the previous year Mr Maduro neutered it, replacing it with a pseudo-parliament that obeys his orders.
But Mr Guaidó has skilfully used his position as a newcomer with apparently few enemies to suspend the internecine disputes within the opposition and revitalise the hopes of all those who want to see the end of Mr Maduro’s rule. His emergence comes at a time when Venezuela’s neighbours, including the United States, are urgently looking for a solution to the country’s crisis. Mr Maduro’s incompetence has pauperised Venezuelans, forcing around a tenth of the population to emigrate. Last year, he held rigged elections and awarded himself a further six-year term, which began on January 10th. The Venezuelan constitution says that, if the president’s job is vacant, as the opposition claims, then the national assembly’s head should take over.
From a middle-class family in the coastal state of Vargas, Mr Guaidó, a former engineering student, has none of the elitist airs of the elder generation of opposition leaders. He and his family lost their home in a catastrophic mudslide in 1999, which killed tens of thousands. That experience, and the mishandling of the aftermath by the government of Hugo Chávez, Mr Maduro’s mentor, led him into politics. He joined Voluntad Popular when it was founded in 2009 by Leopoldo López (who remains the party’s leader, but is under house arrest). He has focused on tracing the billions stolen under both the Maduro and Chávez administrations.
Mr Guaidó repeatedly demurred from declaring himself president, saying he needed the support of both the people and the armed forces. The growing protests are evidence that he has the backing of the vast majority of Venezuelans, even those from poor neighbourhoods of Caracas, where hunger and anger have overcome the fear of the regime. But Mr Guaidó cannot yet claim to have the support of the army. There have been minor military revolts, most recently on January 21st, when 27 national guardsmen stole weapons and declared themselves in rebellion before being arrested. Military leaders, who control key areas of the economy from oil to mining to food distribution, remain outwardly loyal to Mr Maduro. Mr Guaidó is offering amnesties to those who defect. Until that happens, though, Venezuela will have two presidents: one with the legitimacy, and the other with the guns.
See also: How to hasten the demise of Venezuela’s dictatorship (January 24th 2019)