Venezuela's Moribund Opposition Stirs With Lawmaker's Emergence

(Bloomberg) -- Rallying around a little-known lawmaker, Venezuela’s opposition is stirring for the first time since President Nicolas Maduro crushed mass protests more than a year ago.

Venezuela's Moribund Opposition Stirs With Lawmaker's Emergence

For months, citizens ravaged by hunger have ignored calls to protest what the U.S. and many other countries have called a rigged election. Now, a trickle of supporters comes to hear Juan Guaido, 35, the new head of the defanged National Assembly, explain how an abstract constitutional provision could make him acting president.

He has won support from regional leaders and U.S. President Donald Trump, who is considering recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, CNN reported Tuesday. He even earned a brief detention from Maduro’s secret police. But whether Guaido can threaten the two-decade socialist autocracy that has driven the nation to ruin is far from clear.

Marina Cabrera, 56, was among hundreds who came to a recent Caracas event to hear him. Under a fiery sun, Guaido flipped through papers as he spoke and stumbled while reading Venezuela’s charter. Much of the crowd struggled to follow, but still they clapped and cheered.

“We’re facing a tyrant who’s stolen elections,” Cabrera said. “Guaido may be young, but he must assume the presidency.”

Complex Feat

To do that, Guaido faces a Herculean task. In his two-week tenure as head of the assembly, he’s become recognized at home and abroad as Maduro’s top rival. But the largely untested protege of political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez must channel international pressure, unite a fractious opposition and motivate a beaten-down populace.

“In Venezuelan society, there is a constant demand for saviors,” said historian Ines Quintero. “We’re far away from mass protests. There must be a continual demand for change and institutional space that allows for it.”

That space is harder than ever to find. Last week, Maduro, 56, successor to the late Hugo Chavez in 2013, began a six-year term in defiance of domestic foes and the more than 60 nations that refuse to recognize his 2018 election.

Calls are growing for Maduro to step down, but he has refused to change course, quashing opponents and their efforts to remove him through votes or force. In 2017, he convened an all-powerful Constituent Assembly and virtually nullified the legislature, the National Assembly, which is the only elected institution not controlled by his allies. Protests that had claimed more than 120 lives swiftly petered out.

Maduro’s Mockery

Venezuela's Moribund Opposition Stirs With Lawmaker's Emergence

In a Monday speech, Maduro scoffed at the idea of handing Guaido the reins of power. “I’m going to give you the sash, big boy, to see what you do with the country,” Maduro said, referring to the president’s tricolor ceremonial garment.

Guaido, a former student leader, entered the assembly just four years ago and became its chief due to “a series of unfortunate events” after peers were arrested or forced into exile, said Carlos Romero, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.

“His leadership is known within his party, but not the country,” Romero said. “The situation has catapulted him into the spotlight.”

How long his platform lasts remains to be seen. Last week, the Constituent Assembly passed a measure that could be the first step toward the legislature’s disappearance. It also threatened treason investigations against lawmakers who back demands by Venezuela’s neighbors that Maduro hand over power.

Road Show

In the meantime, Guaido is convening town-hall meetings to discuss a constitutional provision that, in the absence of a legitimate president, would give the assembly’s head presidential powers to call new elections. So far, he has stopped short of declaring himself acting president, telling Venezuelans he needs the backing of the military and international community.

Regional leaders have rushed to support him. The Organization of American States and Brazil said they even recognized Guaido as his country’s head of state, while the U.S. State Department called for an “orderly transition” to a new government and pledged all of America’s “economic and diplomatic power” to restore democracy.

Police Grab

Maduro’s loyalists appear to have taken note. On Sunday, Guaido was briefly detained while traveling to an event outside Caracas in his home state of Vargas. According to a cell-phone video disseminated by his Popular Will party, intelligence police pulled up to his vehicle and forced him into another truck. Two reporters also were held.

Released hours later, Guaido redoubled his call for a nationwide protest Jan. 23, in commemoration of the birth of Venezuela’s six-decade-old democracy. “Here is our response," he said, "We’re staying in the streets, and we’re not scared!”

The government has tried to distance itself from the incident and claims the arrest was committed by rogue security forces, but Guaido insists it was a familiar intimidation tactic.

An industrial engineer by training, Guaido more than a decade ago began organizing demonstrations against Chavez after the late leader silenced critics by refusing to renew the broadcast license of Venezuela’s most popular television channel. He formed a close relationship with Lopez, then a Caracas mayor, and later helped him form the Popular Will party. Even with Lopez under house arrest, they talk several times a day.

Baseball Die-Hard

Tall and lanky, Guaido is known for his love of his hometown baseball team, the Sharks of La Guaira, and salsa dancing. Unlike many opposition allies, who are criticized for their blue-blooded roots, Guaido has humble origins. The son of a commercial pilot and a homemaker, he is one of seven children who grew up in the small port city near Caracas.

In 1999, his family survived mudslides that destroyed much of Vargas and killed thousands. “Seeing your daily life wiped out from one day to the next forced us to detach ourselves from material things, but brought us closer,” Guaido told the newspaper El Nacional last month.

Guaido’s partner is Fabiana Rosales, a fellow student leader. Their daughter, Miranda, named after a forerunner to South American independence hero Simon Bolivar, was born amid the 2017 wave of protests, during which her father was hit in the neck by plastic buckshot and broke his hand in clashes with police.

In his short career, Guaido has been applauded for building unity among fellow legislators. His present challenge is to channel the desperate desire for change within the limits of an authoritarian state. Romero, the political scientist, worries that international action is outpacing nascent efforts to revive the opposition and could ultimately endanger Guaido.

“He’s trying to take the middle ground,” Romero said. “But he’s stuck between two trains that are about to collide.”

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