The Venezuelan opposition leader spearheading efforts to unseat Nicolás Maduro has rejected his rival’s claim that his campaign has failed but admitted the “trickle” of military defections to his side had so far been insufficient to force change.
In an interview with the Guardian, Juan Guaidó – now recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president by more than 50 governments – insisted his country’s march into a new political era was unstoppable and Maduro’s “cruel dictatorship” doomed.
“I don’t see how [it is over] … In fact, I’d venture to say change in Venezuela is irreversible … Never before in Venezuela have we had such an important opportunity to achieve democratic change,” said the 35-year-old politician who was catapulted to fame after declaring himself Venezuela’s rightful leader on 23 January.
Of Maduro, he said: “I believe he is utterly detached from reality – constantly contradicting himself in his speeches – and this is a worry when we are seeking a peaceful transition.
“This is how dictatorships always behave: they deny reality, they deny crises … What we must do is carry on pushing forwards … carry on piling pressure on a dictatorship which is obviously not going to hand power over [voluntarily].”
The walls of the Caracas headquarters of Guaidó’s centrist party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), are decorated with inspirational quotes from pacifists and freedom fighters including Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” says one, beneath a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
But critics have questioned the authoritarian inclinations of several of Guaidó’s key allies, particularly in the US and Brazil.
Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has attacked Maduro’s “despicable and murderous” regime but is notorious for celebrating a dictatorship-era torturer and sugarcoating the sins of the generals who ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985.
The US president, Donald Trump, is also known for his admiration of autocrats, including Vladimir Putin of Russia, China’s Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, a Maduro ally whom Trump recently showered with praise.
Guaidó sidestepped criticism of his champions in Washington and Brasilia, claiming he hoped to build a broad international alliance including left- and rightwingers, such as Ecuador’s Lenín Moreno and Chile’s Sebastián Piñera respectively.
“It’s an unprecedented coalition in support of a just cause,” he said, pointing to recognition from Australia, Germany, Honduras, Israel, Morocco, Paraguay, Poland, Spain and Japan.
“All those who talk about democracy, freedom and the rule of law, of human rights, of the fight against corruption are, I believe, important allies.”
Juan Andrés Mejía, a Voluntad Popular politicians and Guaidó ally, said: “Look, we are thankful to all heads of government that have supported our cause. But the fact that they support us doesn’t mean that we approve of everything they do abroad – or in their own countries.”
Nearly a month after Guaidó sparked a showdown with Maduro – who inherited Hugo Chávez’s leftist Bolivarian revolution after his death in 2013 – huge crowds continue to take to the streets in support.
But with Maduro showing no sign of budging, some fear Guaidó’s movement could lose momentum. In 2017, mass anti-Maduro protests convinced many that Chávez’s heir was finished, only for him to emerge stronger.
Guaidó insisted the 2019 revolt was different, largely because of its international backing and sky-high discontent among citizens and members of the military suffering the consequences of their country’s economic collapse.
“The fall of the Berlin Wall took a day … It was a barrier and it came down. I believe we are on the verge of something similar,” he said.
Guaidó claimed up to 90% of Venezuela’s population opposed Maduro and 80% of the armed forces wanted political change. But he also hinted at frustration that an anticipated wave of high-level military defections had not yet materialised.
“More than the trickle that we have seen, a declaration en bloc by the armed forces would be ideal,” Guaidó admitted.
At an event in Caracas on Wednesday, the security expert warned: “The security situation in Venezuela could deteriorate tremendously … in the coming days.”
Guaidó admitted there were “X number of scenarios” – including violent ones – for Venezuela’s immediate future, but said he still believed the most likely prospect was a peaceful transition.
“The only ones talking about war are them,” the opposition leader said of Maduro’s government, which has been holding regular displays of military might.
Mayorca said it was impossible to rule out an attack on Guaidó. “Venezuela doesn’t have a tradition of the physical elimination of big political players. But there could always be a first,” he said, evoking the 1948 assassination of the Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán that sparked a decade of bloodshed known as La Violencia.
Guaidó, a father-of-one whose calm and eloquent nature remind some of Barack Obama, admitted he was engaged in a high-stakes gamble. “Doing politics in Venezuela is a risk and you can pay with your life,” he said, pointing to more than 400 political prisoners and 1,000 exiles.
Might jail or exile be his future if Venezuela’s military refuse to abandon Maduro?
“Or perhaps even death,” Guaidó replied. “As we say in Venezuela: ‘May God have mercy upon us’,” he added, knocking twice on the table in front of him. “Obviously, there is a latent risk.”
With that, Guaidó strode out of the 17th floor office down a corridor whose walls are inscribed with handwritten tributes to his mentor, Leopoldo López, who was jailed in 2014 for his role in the struggle against Maduro.
One message stood out from the calligraphy: “El futuro nos pertenece” it said. “The future belongs to us.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Torres
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