One year ago, Juan Guaidó, 36, was a practically unknown politician, even in his native Venezuela. Yet he knew that on January 5 he would be elected president of the National Assembly and that this would trigger a chain of events that would pose a months-long challenge to the government of Nicolás Maduro.
The leader of Voluntad Popular (Popular Will), the party founded by Leopoldo López, declared himself acting president of Venezuela, and was recognized by more than 60 countries, including Spain. Even though none of the demands he repeated like a mantra have come to pass – an end to the “usurpation,” a transition government, free elections – Guaidó remained upbeat during an interview of over an hour with EL PAÍS inside his office, located in a building that has become a presidential headquarters of sorts.
Guaidó said he has spent all of December meeting with various sectors in order to expand his network of support. Before ending the conversation, he smiled and warned: “You’ll see, this is going to be another really interesting year with lots of action.”
Question. Could you define the year 2019 with one word?
Answer. Struggle; we could even say insurgency. We were fresh out of a non-existent 2018, and a movement surged that has repeatedly challenged a dictatorship.
Q. Many people also feel that it has been a failure.
A. Frustration is not the same thing as resignation.
Q. I said failure, not frustration.
A. Yes, well, but what is the measuring stick? What is the variable? If it is the fact that Maduro is in Miraflores [the presidential palace], it is an absurd variable to use to analyze 2019, when our expectations going into it were minus 10. Using that as the variable would be unfair not just to myself, but to Venezuelan society, which has resisted the onslaughts, which has kept up a mobilization, which has given the crisis visibility, which has earned ratification through a report from the human rights delegation of [former Chilean president and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights] Michelle Bachelet.
Q. You have reiterated that the way forward is an end to the usurpation, a transition government and free elections. But there has been no end to the usurpation.
A. But everyone now says there is an usurpation in Venezuela. [Maduro] exercises his functions as a dictator, not as an elected president. There is terror, there are human rights violations, there is an ecocide through the use and abuse of the state’s resources. In 2018, there were no expectations, and the word then was not insurrection, it was hope. Everybody said: “If only...”
Q. But that hope, that “if only,” is still there.
A. No, it’s different. Now it is about the when and the how. The difference may seem subtle, but it is very different. The “when” implies what I am looking for, and the “how” that I am seeking the tools to achieve it.
Q. What can you do after a year of many promises and few results?
A. Again, if we measure results by the fact that Maduro is sitting in Miraflores acting as a dictator, that is unfair. The hope of change remains. Today is my fifth day of meetings with business and education sectors, with nurses, with university students. We are not going to bring together just the political sector, we are going to bring together the entire country, and a year ago we did not have that opportunity. Maduro is in Miraflores and I am free even though I am a lot of unmentionable things. If the variable is that Maduro is still in Miraflores, let’s not even have a discussion, there is nothing to debate.
Q. Where have you gone wrong?
A. We probably underestimated the dictatorship’s ability to inflict damage. I think the armed forces factor was missing. It was not enough to overcome fear, not just of the population but of the dominant coalition, the inner circle of the dictatorship that at times appeared willing to accept a negotiated way out, like in the case of Norwegian mediation. We tried to encourage a transition with power factors, in the case of the armed forces, on April 30, but it was not enough to generate that transition. Today we are living in a dictatorship that is reaching unfathomable levels. All our indicators are war indicators. There were no bombs in Venezuela, but you can hear the crying.
Q. You made this harsh analysis in 2014, and in 2017. Did you really think that he wielded less power than he really does?
Q. You mean Maduro?
A. We thought they could have relinquished power faster. The fracture in the dominant coalition has not been a minor issue: Attorney General Luisa Ortega, Rafael Ramírez, Hugo Carvajal, Cristopher Figuera, the military at La Carlota airbase... Six thousand men defected from the Armed Forces, and what they did a few days ago was to formalize this fact. The crack in the dominant coalition has been much slower than we’d like, and the challenge is to see how we can generate enough pressure for a transition to democracy in Venezuela. All the variables need to align simultaneously: social pressure, forced definitions, building bridges with those who might take a step forward, and extending alternatives, even to the dictator.
Q. The militia has been conceived for a military response. You have repeatedly said that all options are on the table. Are you ruling out a military intervention, do you think it makes any sense?
A. I don’t think so. I don’t see a formal military intervention. We have the possibility to choose a new CNE [National Electoral Council] that would open the doors to truly free elections. There was the initiative of proposing a council of State for the transition to take place… I don’t think it is positive, or feasible, to consider the option of an intervention, which is a simile for war. What we need to find are the tools to dislodge the dictatorship.
Q. It took nobody by surprise to see Chavismo [supporters of now-deceased Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez] play a waiting game. But it also comes as no surprise that the opposition has fractured again. Why have the same mistakes been made?
A. I think it is a harsh appraisal to say that unity is cracking. The parliamentary majority remains, even though 31 lawmakers are out, one is in prison and 30 more in exile. The dictatorship has systematically sought to destroy us, not just morally but also physically. There is another specter of the opposition, and I won’t go into whether they are a majority or a minority, who are now sitting at an alleged dialogue table. And then there is the specter of [former presidential candidate and opposition activist] María Corina Machado, who is very important, with a very strong voice at the international level, who favors the option of force. The challenge will be to bring all these groups in line.
Q. It seems that the opposition is more exhausted than the Chavista regime. Why is there still a power struggle within the opposition?
A. I must differ, because even numerically, when it comes to public opinion, Chavismo is at its lowest moment in the last 20 years – not so the opposition.
Q. You were recognized as the acting president by over 60 countries. Now, the situation in some allied countries in Latin America, such as Colombia or Chile, is unstable; Mauricio Macri is no longer in power in Argentina. What are your feelings regarding support from the international community?
A. First, there is a lot of resentment against the Maduro dictatorship for funding violent groups and cells in some countries. Concern over Venezuela is greater.
Q. Concern may be greater, but attention is unquestionably less than it was.
A. I think the scenario is a lot more adverse for [Maduro]. A lot of people had probably not counted on the turn of events in Bolivia [with the resignation of president Evo Morales], for instance; Uruguay, with [the victory of center-right candidate] Lacalle Pou; El Salvador, Guatemala, with the arrival of President Giammattei…
Q. But there is Argentina, which invited a Venezuelan minister Jorge Rodríguez to the inauguration; Mexico, which has not recognized you as the president; at the United Nations General Assembly, it was Vice President Delcy Rodríguez who spoke in the name of Venezuela. And this week, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza met with Spain’s secretary of state. What does all this say to you?
A. Let’s go to the practical issues. They need money, and they are not going to receive it from any of those countries that you’ve just mentioned. They need those photo ops, but the fact is, Maduro wasn’t in any of them, it was his emissaries. He is alone and desperate, he is looking for any photograph, even if it’s with a minister.
Q. One might say the same about you. If they have low visibility, yours is even lower.
A. From a certain logic, that is true. But the fact is that this country is in the grip of a dictatorship, and that my closest circle is in prison, in exile, under torture. We don’t have the ability that the dictatorship has to control the public media outlets, teleSUR, to invest in propaganda… Yet we have managed to get the entire world to talk about this.
Q. What are the odds that after January 5 you will no longer be the president of the National Assembly?
A. There is a possibility. I think it is very, very small.
Q. There has been no end to the usurpation. There has been no transition government. Is it time to start thinking about free elections?
A. We have been thinking about that since January 5 of this year.
Q. I mean even if the other two variables are not achieved.
A. In order to have free elections, there needs to be an independent arbiter, we need to be able to choose our candidates, not have the dictatorship do it through disqualification or persecution. There cannot be free elections without a new CNE. The great dilemma is: is it possible to have re-institutionalization and the guarantee of a presidential election with Maduro sitting in Miraflores? That is an ongoing debate.
Q. What do you think?
A. Today, I think not. This could change after January 5, with a CNE elected by parliament, a fully functional parliament. Today, with Maduro there, there would not be truly free elections.
Q. But if the CNE were to change...
A. If we want to speculate, if we were to have a new CNE, if all the candidates were reinstated, all the parties legalized, if the Supreme Court of Justice were impartial, well, all of that would constitute a transition in itself.
Q. Is Venezuela destined to see a pact among the political elites?
A. Around a solution?
A. We all want a real solution that will bring an end to the conflict, that will return the country to normality, that will build dignity, we want Venezuelans to be the ones to be able to express themselves and decide our future. We need a solution no matter what in Venezuela. Earlier we wanted change, and we proved that in 2015. Today we need it, it is a matter or survival for the average Venezuelan. I think the country would be happy to see any solution, as long as it is a responsible one.
Q. What is your relationship with Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López like?
A. Very good, very constructive in many ways, in the awareness that I am now the acting president of Venezuela, the president of parliament, and that he is the national coordinator of the party that we founded 10 years ago.
Q. He is also your political father, the one who put you where you are today. How much of an influence does he have on you?
A. We are in an unprecedented situation, and I want to achieve governability and stability. I not only consult with Leopoldo, but also with many other opposition leaders, with important world allies.
Q. Was there a management error during the attempt to bring in humanitarian aid on February 23?
A. There was a communication error, because the intention was an important and necessary gesture. [...] It could not be an error to seek aid for all those people.
Q. What about management? A truck went up in flames in the opposition side, and nothing more has been heard about the money that was raised during the concert organized by Richard Branson.
A. It proved the totalitarian nature of the regime, which is not interested in helping but in controlling.
Q. Some photographs of you have emerged of the moment when you crossed the border with Colombian paramilitary groups. How do you explain that?
A. Very simple. The Colombia-Venezuela border is closed, it has been taken over not just by the paramilitary but also by guerrillas, ELN [National Liberation Army of Colombia], FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] forces. Many Venezuelans have to go across through trochas [illegal trails]. To use that to link me to anything at all is completely absurd.
Q. What did you think when the recent cases of corruption involving opposition lawmakers were revealed?
A. I felt a lot of sadness. We have fought for many years against any form of corruption. The interesting thing, and I celebrate that, was how society immediately rejected it, as did in general the opposition.
Q. What do you expect from [Spain’s former Socialist Party minister] Josep Borrell as the new head of diplomacy at the European Union?
A. A lot. In general, we expect firmness from Europe with regard to the crisis in Venezuela. Also from Spain, which has traditionally had a leadership role in anything to do with Iberoamerica in Europe.
Q. In an interview with this newspaper, Borrell said that US sanctions are hurting the people of Venezuela.
A. At the end of the day, when we talk about more sanctions, we are alluding to specific pressure tools. Maduro is not going to have an epiphany tomorrow and suddenly say: “Oh look, we’ve destroyed Venezuela. Let’s open up the door to change and to a solution.” So what do I specifically expect? To achieve the necessary pressure to find a solution to the conflict that Venezuela is experiencing. Call it what you will. In this case, it looks like one of the types of pressure that could work are sanctions. If we find others, they will be welcome.
Q. Have you been a sprinter in a marathon?
A. I don’t run marathons, although I do run. Marathon runners, once they pass their 30th kilometer, reach a stage they call the “wall,” because they start to wonder: “Why did I run?” I think we have reached that stage in Venezuela.
Q. What kilometer are things at?
A. In the last phase. I think we’ve already run a lot.
This is an abridged version of the original interview in Spanish.
English version by Susana Urra.