Venezuela's Juan Guaido: Who is the interim president?

Despite declaring himself the interim president, Juan Guaido is not a household name in Venezuela's opposition, but he has been at the forefront of one of the boldest moves against Nicolas Maduro. How did he get there?

One of the most daring acts of the Venezuelan opposition in recent years has been led by Juan Guaido, a relatively unknown figure who on Wednesday declared himself interim president of Venezuela in a move that represents a serious challenge to President Nicolas Maduro.

People close to Guaido have described him as a political "centrist." The 35-year-old has been a member of the Voluntad Popular (VP), Popular Will,  political opposition party since shortly after the organization was formed in 2009.

Read more: Venezuela at a crossroads​​​

VP has long been seen as one of the more radical parties within the opposition, and belonged at the time to the now-defunct Unity Roundtable, an agglomeration of parties that led the Venezuelan opposition for years.

A youth activist

An industrial engineer by trade, Guaido began his political career in Caracas at the Andres Bello Catholic University just as an opposition student movement was flourishing. Between 2010 and 2015, he was designated a substitute deputy in Venezuela's national assembly.

In 2015, he joined other opposition figures in a hunger strike to pressure the National Electoral Council to set a date for parliamentary elections that year.

The legislative vote took place in December 2015, and Guaido became a member of Venezuela's National Assembly, representing the Caracas-adjacent state of Vargas for the 2016-2021 legislative period.

At that time, the Venezuelan opposition won the majority of seats and gained control of the legislative body. But in 2017, Maduro moved to strip the National Assembly of its powers and created a new government body, the Constituent Assembly, to be Venezuela's legislative branch.

With much of his party's leadership out of politics, Guaido's star has risen fast in Venezuela

Filling a leadership vacuum

Due to its strongly confrontational strategy against Maduro, VP's political leadership was pushed out of Venezuelan politics. The charismatic and wildly popular opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez was jailed in 2014 and continues to live under house arrest.

Freddy Guevara, who was vice-president of the National Assembly, was accused of committing acts of political violence in 2017 and sought refuge in Chile's embassy in Caracas, where he still resides. Carlos Vecchio, VP's party coordinator, went into exile after Maduro's government held him responsible for the deaths of protesters in 2014.

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The VP leadership wipe-out paved the way for Guaido to step into such a high leadership position at an early age and with relatively less experience. He was sworn in as leader of the National Assembly and de facto leader of the opposition early in January, at a time when not many in Venezuela had heard of him. 

Now some regard Guaido's youth and novelty as just what the opposition needs to revitalize the fight against Maduro at a time when the country is plagued by an economic crisis and Venezuelans are fleeing in large numbers.

Venezuela on the brink

The last straw

In March 2017, violent protests erupted across the country in response to a Supreme Court decision to strip the legislative branch of its powers. Amid an international outcry, President Nicolas Maduro reversed the decision, but it was too late. Thousands continued to take to the streets, calling for new elections. More than 100 people were killed in clashes with security forces.

Venezuela on the brink

Hunger, a growing problem

The violence added to the ongoing economic and political crisis in Venezuela. Many Venezuelans spend more than 30 hours a week waiting in lines to shop, and are often confronted with empty shelves when they finally enter a store. President Maduro blames the crisis on US price speculation. The opposition, however, accuses the Socialist government of economic mismanagement.

Venezuela on the brink

Health care in crisis

The crisis has even affected health care in the oil-rich nation. Venezuelans often head to Colombia to collect medical supplies to send home, as seen in this picture. Hospitals across Venezuela have compared conditions to those seen only in war zones. As patient deaths rise, health officials have sounded the alarm on the rise of malaria and dengue fever.

Venezuela on the brink

Power grab

By July 2017, Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly was established. For observers, it had all the hallmarks of a power grab. The new body adopted the authority to pass legislation on a range of issues, effectively taking away the powers of Venezuela's elected congress, which was under the opposition's control. The move drew wide international condemnation.

Venezuela on the brink

The West sanctions

In response to the political crisis, the United States and European Union imposed a series of sanctions against ruling officials. The US blacklisted members of the Constituent Assembly and froze all of Maduro's assets that are subject to US jurisdiction. The EU banned arms sales to the country.

Venezuela on the brink

Government victorious in regional elections

In October 2017, Venezuela held two votes: regional elections and elections for governors, which were long overdue. The opposition boycotted the vote, but then split, as some candidates and small parties chose to participate. This caused a deep rift within Maduro's opponents. The government went on to sweep the vote, which detractors say was unfair and heavily favored the regime.

Venezuela on the brink

Debt default

In November 2017, the oil-rich, cash-poor nation faced its day of reckoning. Credit ratings agencies declared Venezuela and its state-run oil company in "selective default." But Russia offered to restructure the South American country's debt to ensure Caracas pays its other creditors. US and EU sanctions, however, limited the chance of an agreement.

Venezuela on the brink

Presidential elections scheduled

The National Assembly announced in January 2018 that it would grant Maduro's call for snap presidential elections. The electoral authority, CNE, held the elections on May 20. The EU, the US and 14 Latin American nations warned that they would not recognize the results. The mainstream MUD opposition alliance boycotted the vote, leaving only one possible outcome.

Venezuela on the brink

Maduro wins ...

Maduro was re-elected to a second six-year term with about 68 percent of the vote. Turnout was only 46 percent, according to electoral authorities. However, the MUD opposition alliance put turnout at less than 30 percent. The Organization of American States (OAS) called the elections neither free nor fair.

Venezuela on the brink

... Guaido assumes power

But weeks into the new year, the situation took a drastic turn. On January 23, 2019, parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela — a move that was quickly recognized by US President Donald Trump. Maduro called it a US-backed "coup." Days later, the US sanctioned Venezuela's state oil firm, while Guaido staked his claim on the country's foreign assets.

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