Three weeks ago, few Venezuelans knew Juan Guaidó’s name. Today, the 35-year-old is the international face of Venezuelan protest. More than a dozen countries have officially backed Guidó’s claim to be his country’s interim president and tens of thousands of people have turned out on the streets to support him.
After years of economic crisis and repression under Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime, politicians and the public have rallied around Guiado, who is leader of the opposition-held parliament, which was stripped of its powers in 2017. On Jan. 23, he was sworn in as acting president on the basis that Maduro’s second term was illegitimate and that the constitution says the parliament leader must take charge in a power vacuum. In the week since, Guaidó has appointed members of a parallel government and persuaded the U.S. to impose crippling sanctions that will make it harder and harder for Maduro to cling to power.
Now he’s thinking about the next step toward restoring Venezuela’s democracy. Less than an hour after addressing parliament on Jan. 31, Guaidó spoke to TIME over the phone from his home in Caracas.
“Maduro is clearly lost, he seems disoriented,” Guaidó tells TIME. “It’s been weeks and he has barely been able to respond. All he can do is defend himself.”
The challenges that remain are daunting, but Guaidó does not seem fazed. Venezuela’s powerful military — which has more than 2,000 generals, 100,000 active members and has enjoyed vast economic and political influence for two decades under the Socialist regime — is still backing Maduro. Analysts say the complicity of the armed forces in networks of corruption and organized crime means they have little incentive to withdraw their support. But Guaidó, who says he has held clandestine meetings with some members of the military, is hopeful that they are starting to listen. “No one is willing to sacrifice themselves for Maduro or take up arms to fight for him,” he says, dismissing the possibility of civil war. “Increasingly, the obvious choice is to put it all aside.
Nevertheless, Guaidó worries about being arrested — or worse. There are currently over 350 political prisoners in Venezuela, including his mentor and former leader of his Popular Will party Leopoldo Lopez. Pro-Maduro security forces have killed at least 40 in protests since Guaidó began to lay claim to power.
Hours before Guaidó spoke to TIME, members of a special police force, known as FAES, visited his home while his baby daughter was there. (He and his wife, Fabiana Rosales, were out.)
The tense situation in Venezuela and Washington’s support for Guaidó, have led some to raise the prospect of a U.S. military intervention in the country. Guaidó is keen to avoid that — although he has not ruled it out. Intervention, he says, is the last resort. “It’s feasible for us to achieve a peaceful transition in the short term, with pressure from Venezuela and internationally, and knowing that all the cards are on the table.”
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You’re in danger of being arrested and your family have been threatened. How long can you go on like this?
Yes, my family has been threatened. We ares now being harassed. The very act of protest is dangerous in Venezuela. There are more than 350 political prisoners, over 1,000 exiles. They murdered [opposition councillor] Fernando Alban. It’s a latent threat. But this is a crucial moment for Venezuela. We have to keep fulfilling our responsibilities and doing our jobs.
Maduro is the face of the regime. But beneath him there’s an extensive system of corruption and organized crime. Do you think that will disappear just because Maduro goes?
There’s a system that’s been established over 20 years, a system that has ransacked the country. A system that has taken the world’s third largest oil company – which the national oil company PDVSA was at one point – and driven production down from 3.5 million barrels to 1 million, despite allegedly “investing” $300 billion in it. To achieve a successful transition, we don’t just have to remove Maduro. We also have to rescue our institutions themselves. That’s why we have set out three phases: ending Maduro’s usurpation of power, implementing a transition government and holding free elections.
You have held meetings with the military. Do they show any sign of withdrawing their support for Maduro?
For many years most of us in the opposition didn’t communicate with them. But we’re trying to tell them that they have an important place in our society, like any other profession, such as farmers, or businessmen. I think they are starting to listen to us. Eighty percent of the armed forces suffer from the same problems as the rest of Venezuelans. We have seen them expressing discontent with what’s going on.
The military controls Venezuela’s import business and oil industry, and many top commanders are accused of ties to organized crime. Don’t you think it’s going to be tough to convince them to give up all the benefits they’ve had under the regime?
Importantly, there are fewer and fewer of those benefits. The mafia structure they have built in Venezuela is crumbling. We’re seeing the collapse of the dominant class. Now is the time to offer the military and other government officials the guarantee of amnesty.
With the amnesty law, do you think Venezuelans can really forgive what’s happened in the last few years?
It’s tough. We’ve suffered a lot in these years and the scars are deep. We’ve lost our democracy, we’ve seen the biggest emigration in the Western hemisphere. We’ve lost our quality of life. Today in Venezuela you can’t walk down the street, because it’s not safe. You can’t shower when you want because water doesn’t come out of the tap. You can’t buy food because you can’t afford it or there isn’t enough in the shops. But we have to find a way to restore normality. That means we have to find one way or another to forgive.
Will those who have committed violent crimes be forgiven under the amnesty law? Will amnesty apply there or not?
We need to remember that forgiveness doesn’t mean impunity. There will be justice. But for a transition process, you have to remember two words; transitional justice. That’s what will allow us to govern. Of course we have to look at things case by case, consider each element, but it is possible to give amnesty to all the officials and military who collaborate in order to help us restore democracy in Venezuela.
Do you think there’s a risk of greater violence if some factions of the military support you and others don’t?
I don’t see that as feasible. I know internationally Maduro has wanted to make [civil war] seem like a possibility, but in reality, 85 to 90% of the country wants change. There’s a small elite that wants to keep that control. But that is unsustainable now. No one is willing to sacrifice themselves for Maduro or take up arms to fight for him. Increasingly, the obvious choice is to put it all aside.
Would you accept a U.S. military intervention?
Obviously, when our priorities are to keep the social cost as low as possible and deal with the emergency and achieve stability in the shortest time frame possible, [intervention] seems like the very last resort. It’s feasible for us to achieve a peaceful transition in the short term, with pressure from Venezuela and internationally, and knowing that all the cards are on the table.
In terms of your U.S. allies, what do you think of National Security Adviser John Bolton publicizing discussions he’s had with U.S. oil companies about them benefitting from regime change in Venezuela?
In truth, I haven’t heard his remarks. But I do believe Venezuela should today be a power in terms of resources, a powerhouse in everything to do with mining, energy, gas, petrol. Right now, it’s impoverished. Our economy contracted 53% in five years and inflation is at over 1 million per cent. That’s not a way to do business.
The most important element for any economy is confidence. A new government will generate certainty, which will in turn generate market stability, the possibility for investment, and returns.
What is the mood like in Venezuela right now?
The big difference this year is absolute hope. There’s certainty that we are going to change things. That energy is a very powerful motor. The despair, disillusionment, and frustration, has now become energy, strength, and a determination to fight. That’s why this is a pivotal moment for the future of our country.