Juan Guaido spent his entire adult life living under the promises of a socialist utopia, first under Hugo Chavez, then Nicolas Maduro. Now as he battles for Venezuela’s presidency, the 35-year-old has adopted the early campaign slogan and stylings of a US president.
“Can we do it?” He roared to a vast crowd in the capital, Caracas last Saturday.
“Yes we can!” They shouted back, their right hands held high as they joined him in pledging a swift and peaceful transition to democratic presidential elections.
Intentionally or not, there’s a lot of Barack Obama about Guaido, a former industrial engineer, current head of Venezuela’s National Assembly and self-declared president of the nation.
Guaido has adopted the former US president’s white open-neck shirt and suit combo, and shares his broad smile.
He’s good with a crowd, ploughing his way to the podium at a recent rally through adoring fans and hopping over barriers with a youthful ease that might rekindle memories of his days as a student activist in Caracas’ Catholic University.
And perhaps most important, he’s managed to bend the rage that many Venezuelans feel at their collapsed economy, crumbling social service, food shortages and astronomical inflation into something more powerful – hope.
“It’s something that we’ve always told him. When Obama became president, we told him ‘You walk like Obama,” Guaido’s mother Norka told CNN. “Obama roll up his sleeves, and [Guaido] also does that, but it’s not like he’s mimicking Obama,” she added.
“Juan has emerged and he is surprised by it because he did not imagine he’d be president even for an interim period,” said Roberto Patino, a senior aide to Guaido who will soon be running Guaido’s humanitarian relief effort.
“But we’ve seen what this government has done and we’re all trying to do something about it,” he added. “For the first time in many years, there is a kind of hope that we’ll get new presidential elections.”
Juan Guaido’s political awakening
Asked what was most irritating about Guaido, his wife Fabiana admitted he could be a little bottled-up. “I think his strength, the strength that he also transmits, sometimes does not allow anything to break him, and maybe blocks many feelings,” she said. “And I believe this path has taken him to that, to take his feelings and grab them and keep them here, not let to them out, not to express them.”
But Guaido is “completely different’ with their 21-month-old daughter, she said. “With her, he expresses himself maybe different from what we see when he is on the streets. We see a man with great strength, and with his daughter you see such a great love.”
Norka describes the young Guaido, one of four boys, as gregarious, beach-loving and athletic. He frequently showed signs of leadership and an aptitude for mediation, she says. Though her family was not involved in politics, she says there has never been a particular party affiliation.
Guaido’s political awakening came, perhaps, as a result of his first confrontation with the failings of the state: His home town, La Guaira, was all but wiped off the map by the 1999 Vargas landslide.
Guaido’s home was destroyed, and several of his friends died in the disaster. “We lost everything, but thank God we survived. We were given a second chance at life,” Norka said. “It scarred him deeply.”
Guaido was frustrated at what he perceived to be the government’s failure, under Hugo Chavez, to adequately respond to the catastrophe. He believed the government ignored the plight of too many, failed to rehouse people, and was too slow to deal with the disaster. An estimated 19,000 people were killed by the landslide, according to the US Geological Survey.
His political ambitions crystallized after university, when he joined a failed campaign to prevent Chavez’s closure of Radio Caracas Television in 2007. He went on to join Leopoldo Lopez in founding the nationwide political party Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) in 2009. He joined the National Assembly in 2011, and assumed its chief leadership role in early January.
Stand off on a global stage
Guaido has a flair for theatrical politics. In 2015, he went on hunger strike for two weeks as part of a campaign to force the government to hold parliamentary elections.
Now he is organizing humanitarian aid to be shipped to three crossings into Venezuela from Colombia, Brazil, and Caribbean islands, while incumbent president Maduro insists that the country does not need aid. In doing so, Guaido is challenging the military to either maintain a national blockade out of loyalty to Maduro, or let much-needed food and supplies finally enter the impoverished country.
Maduro, who briefly detained Guaido in early January and recently hinted at doing so again, has a few dramatic tricks of his own. Last week, Guaido publicly accused the Venezuelan special forces, who are loyal to Maduro, of surrounding his family’s home in an alleged intimidation attempt.
“As humans, we have moments of weakness or when one thinks that something bad is about to happen,” Fabiana, his wife, said. “Last week [when special forces surrounded their home] I did not feel fear, but rather frustration because of what could have happened to my daughter.”
Venezuela’s constitution empowers the National Assembly leader to assume the presidency if there is “a vacuum of power.” Guaido, who argues that Maduro’s election to the presidency last year was illegitimate, claims that such a vacuum exists and that he has a constitutional mandate to fill it.
The United States, much of the European Union, and most countries in South America have recognized Guaido as the legitimate interim president, and called for new elections in Venezuela. But Guaido has so far failed to secure the support of the armed forces, at least in public.
Meanwhile Maduro, who enjoys the backing of the Supreme Court, has rejected demands for new presidential elections, offering “dialogue” instead. So far, that suggestion has been brushed off by Guaido’s camp.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of La Guaira.