‘We Are Going to Continue to Fight’
Venezuela’s would-be president, Juan Guaidó, says he’s confident ahead of a new round of talks with the Maduro government.
Juan Guaidó may face his biggest challenge yet as he sits down with members of the Nicolás Maduro government for the latest round of negotiations in Barbados this week in an attempt to break the political stalemate in Venezuela. When I last talked with Guaidó, who proclaimed himself acting president of the country in January but has failed to take power, he had just announced that he and fellow members of the National Assembly would go to the border on Feb. 23 and welcome the entry of much-needed humanitarian aid arriving from Colombia. Since then, the Guaidó-led opposition has suffered repeatedly from internal strife and dashed hopes—never more so than after April 30, when the former opposition leader Leopoldo López escaped from house arrest and showed up outside the La Carlota military base with Guaidó. López declared that the military forces were switching sides, encouraging supporters to take to the streets and fight for freedom. The supporters responded en masse, and the result was once again violent clashes between government forces and civilians, 48 hours of riots, violence, and uncertainty ending in disappointment for opposition supporters who had thought that this would be the final push.
While the opposition struggles with regaining the trust of its supporters, the Maduro government is maintaining the status quo, keeping its stronghold on the Venezuelan people. Since the start of the political turmoil in January, Venezuelans have seen no change to speak of. There have been repeated and extended electrical blackouts, many areas around the country are either partially or totally without access to clean water, and rampant inflation and a critical lack of medicine and health services have resulted in a state of hopelessness with no clear end in sight. Most recently, Rafael Acosta Arévalo, a military captain who had sided with Guaidó during the dramatic events of Feb. 23 and who was subsequently arrested by military intelligence, died after allegedly having been tortured for months. His death didn’t lead to massive protests and riots against the Maduro government, as one might have expected, but seems to have functioned as an effective warning to anyone contemplating a similar move.
I met with Guaidó in his office in the National Assembly building, just before he was set to start the July 9 session, and spoke with him through a translator. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Annika Hernroth-Rothstein: What do you say to those who feel let down by you and by the opposition? And why should they trust you, going forward?
Juan Guaidó: Well, a few things. First, the change in Venezuela, the momentum we have built, that we have achieved today, even though we are facing a dictatorship, what do I tell all these people today? That naturally, they can feel a bit of doubt, that we have made a majority, that we are continuing to do so, that we have the support of the world, that we have protected our assets, that the dictatorship is weak, alone, isolated, weakened. After [United Nations] Human Rights Commission representative [Michelle] Bachelet’s report, the world can see clearly that we live in a dictatorship—there can be no euphemism for it—that has no consideration for the freedom of press, that commits massive crimes against humanity that need to be tried in an international criminal court.
AHR: But why, after repeatedly deeming the Maduro government illegitimate, would you then seemingly legitimize it by agreeing to these talks, and do you understand the anger that your supporters express over it?
JG: More than illegitimate, I call them dictators, as they are. They are a dictatorship that persecutes, tortures, murders. … Now, we understand and appreciate the mediation of the Kingdom of Norway, of the International Contact Group. … Just a few minutes ago, Enrique Iglesias was sitting here, an envoy of the International Contact Group. The pressure is accumulated by the Lima Group, of the [Organization of American States], of our allies in the United States, of the region, of the neighbors, of the street, of the exercise of protest, of the protection of the assets, of the diplomatic pressure, of advancing in all spaces in society. We take all of this and then we configure a grand strategy. Seeing any element in isolation, for us as Venezuelans, would surely be an error and generate doubts, as is natural.
AHR: But you do understand why the negotiations are making people upset?
JG: Of course. Why? Because we have the Dominican experience in 2017 [when talks in the Dominican Republic collapsed]. We tried that mechanism at that moment in the negotiations, and it did not work. It did not work at that moment and, as a product of that, it was not recognized by the international community in May 2018. Consequently, I invite anyone who might have legitimate doubts or critiques to look at what we call the big picture. We are working on all the stages where we must work. We must not trust the dictatorship, but, on the contrary, we must use a lot of pressure to put an end to the suffering of the Venezuelans, put an end to the tragedy that we are living, and build a framework for our strategy to end the usurpation, install a transition government, and hold free elections.
What more can I say? That we have arrived at this moment. That, when we started in January, it seemed like a fight between David and Goliath, a very unequal fight—today, it seems more like an equal fight, a collision of trains, meaning that, as a society, as an alternative, as an interim government, we have acquired the dimensions of a train. Strong, going in one direction, on one path, accompanied by many people, and that is on the verge of the change.
AHR: Well, I think what many are wondering and asking is how long this process will take, when the change is actually coming?
JG: “How long?” This what we Venezuelans ask ourselves every day, as a consequence of the ongoing tragedy we are living, but we have to take this matter to a rational dimension, because frustration and distrust belong to a subjective dimension, the dimension of emotions, perhaps.
AHR: How do you plan to instill faith and trust between yourself and the armed forces, ensuring that others who choose to side with the opposition won’t meet the same fate as Rafael Acosta Arévalo?
JG: These horrible actions need to not only be penalized and sanctioned but, once we achieve change, so that they will not exist anymore. Military and nonmilitary leaders have rejected this tragic event, and we have alerted the world. This is regular practice in this dictatorship, as we saw already in what happened to officer Fernando Albán eight months or I think almost a year ago, this is what this dictatorship does. The first thing we did was to organize a march on the place where he was tortured, the [General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence], not only to demonstrate that Venezuela isn’t afraid, but that we will not succumb in the face of fear and torture. We demonstrated clearly that we reject that behavior, that it is a small group that tortures. It is worth adding that these are soldiers torturing soldiers and that we, the civil leaders, went to reject that tragic event and alert the world that it is a practice of this dictatorship of torturing soldiers to death
AHR: The issue of military support or the possible lack thereof also came up during the events of April 30, when something clearly seemed to have gone wrong. Are you concerned that this has influenced or diminished the international support?
JG: I mean, I believe that what is clear is that there is discontent in the military ranks … but it is not sufficient today, that we have to insist on generating guarantees for all sectors to produce a transition and that, even if we did not achieve it on that day, it is true that the armed forces do not support the dictator.
We also have the support of our citizens who want, who need change. We have achieved the opening of spaces to achieve effective and fast solutions to the conflict. Now, what is the key of the next days for us, as Venezuelans? First of all, we are in conversations with international as well as national entities to pressure a dictatorship. What we would do in the following weeks, months, or now in Venezuela? Finishing to learn all of these ingredients we have accumulated during the years, not only to stop the dictatorship but to achieve the transition, end of usurpation, and free elections.
AHR: So you still feel that the international community is behind you?
JG: It is evident that is no longer a conflict that only involves Venezuelans. There are 4 million immigrants in the region [who have left Venezuela], and that will only get worse if we don’t attack the cause of the problem, which is the dictatorship. In Venezuela today, there is not only a lack of medicine and food, but there is also a risk of the extraction and contraband of precious minerals. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the ELN [Colombian militant group], is in Venezuela, and it is even trafficking people. Trafficking drugs as well, so this is a very acute crisis. They are, let’s say, murdering the Amazon, an ecocide without precedent. They are also extracting precious minerals, diamonds, gold … among other things, so we cannot allow, as Venezuelans or as citizens of the world, the crisis to be normalized and become a part of the scenery, so we shall continue to insist. So what can people expect from the Venezuelans? That we are going to continue to fight. What would we like to expect from the international community? That they accompany us in this fight and that we don’t become a part of the scenery, but that they take what is happening very seriously and help us resolve the crisis.
AHR: So what comes next for the opposition and for Venezuela?
JG: The first thing is to keep the majority united and mobilized; that’s the first thing. The internal pressure, regardless of the persecution, regardless of the torture, regardless of the persecution, we remain firm. My chief of staff remains held hostage, the first vice president of parliament also remains held hostage—that has not stopped us, and we continue to advance, and you have seen this even in the streets of Venezuela. We also have the world’s support, we also have the clarity of our citizens who want, need change. We have managed to open spaces to achieve effective and quick solutions to the conflict, which is key to the next few days for us as Venezuelans
AHR: You sound confident.
JG: Yes. As long as we keep ourselves united and mobilized, we are on the eve, in the short term, of a transition in Venezuela.