CARACAS - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is looking to jumpstart his movement to oust Nicolas Maduro in the wake of last week's failed military uprising, promising to persevere in the face of a deepening crackdown.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Guaido reiterated his willingness to consider inviting foreign troops to force Maduro from power, echoing the line from Washington that “all options” are on the table for dealing with Venezuela's rapidly-escalating crisis.
He blamed the socialist leader for blocking all attempts to negotiate a solution and noted: “The biggest obstacle to that is Maduro.”
The 35-year-old national assembly president, who the U.S. and some 50 other countries recognize as Venezuela's rightful leader, sat for the interview at his party's headquarters two days after the No. 2 leader in congress was jailed and as several other lawmakers took refuge in foreign embassies.
All are facing arrest for joining Guaido and a small cadre of security forces in a military rebellion April 30 that was the closest the opposition has come in years to overthrowing Maduro.
Yet, Guaido isn't showing signs of fatigue.
He talks serenely and smiles widely when well-wishers huddle with him in prayer. While the Maduro government hasn't dared arrest him — the U.S. has warned of severe consequences should he be harmed — he said security forces who track his every move could “kidnap” him at any time. Meanwhile, his fellow activist wife and 2-year-old daughter have been living outside Venezuela for months.
“There's a movement made up of a majority that's in the streets and that's not going to change no matter how much they hit us,” he said. “The one thing the dictatorship fears most is hope.”
But observers note the fresh-faced opposition leader may be running out of options. Phil Gunson, a senior analyst with the Crisis Group in Caracas, said that after the failed military rebellion, it seems unlikely that the U.S. will carry through on threats of military action.
“He's in a bind,” Gunson said. “If the repression is going to continue at this level, it's going to be difficult to keep up his campaign of mass mobilization because people are going to be too scared to go out on the streets.”
In the current stalemate, Gunson said negotiations are the opposition's best exit strategy. But demands that Maduro step aside as a precondition for talks are no longer a real possibility.
“They already played their best hand,” he said, referring to the opposition.
Nonetheless, Guaido said winning over the military is possible and requires greater outreach so that troops understand they won't be targeted if they flip. He said most top commanders and their troops already despise Maduro and are only feigning loyalty to him because they are under constant surveillance by Cuban and Venezuelan secret police.
“What keeps Maduro in power, and we've witnessed more openly in recent hours, is terror,” Guaido said.
Guaido, a previously unknown lawmaker, revived the flagging opposition movement when he declared himself interim president in January, accusing Maduro of breaking the constitutional order when he claimed victory in elections widely seen as lacking legitimacy after several opponents were barred from running.
His humble roots and unpretentious speech have endeared him to struggling Venezuelans and managed to keep together an unruly opposition coalition frequently torn apart by battling egos and strategic differences.
But old fractures are re-emerging as some blame prominent activist Leopoldo Lopez, who fled house arrest to stand alongside Guaido in the uprising, for overplaying his hand. After the putsch failed, Maduro ordered Lopez's arrest and the former Caracas area mayor fled to the Spanish ambassador's residence, where he is holed up.
Lopez, who was arrested in 2014, is one of Venezuela's shrewdest political operators who even while in state custody worked behind the scenes to promote Guaido's rise when few Venezuelans had even heard of his name. But he's also been dogged by criticism that he overestimates his own strength and takes ill-advised risks.
When pressed, Guaido refused to criticize his mentor, noting that this was not the time to focus on personal ambitions.
Guaido said he is grateful for support from the U.S., which has slapped severe oil sanctions on Venezuela and sent several planeloads of aid to bordering countries as part of a failed opposition plan to open a humanitarian corridor. With delivery of that aid unlikely for now, he said he's willing to donate some of it to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is working with the Maduro government to distribute supplies.
He said sanctions aren't to blame for Venezuela's collapse, as the government contends, but are nonetheless succeeding in squeezing Maduro's ability to buy support through corruption.
“Without hesitation they've called Maduro what he is: a dictator,” he said of the Trump administration.
But as the impasse with Maduro has dragged on, America's interest could begin to wane.
Last week, Trump directly contradicted earlier statements by his own national security team that Russia has been propping up the socialist leader with military and financial support. Instead, the U.S. president said, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not “involved” and only wants “positive” things for Venezuela.
Guaido downplayed Trump's comments, saying they were “just a different way of reaching out to Russia.”
Meanwhile, he said he was encouraged by recent comments by China's government that it would step up its work with the EU and the international community to support political dialogue. Coming from Venezuela's biggest creditor and a Maduro ally, the remarks were seen as something of an endorsement for the International Contact Group, an EU-led initiative that is seeking to promote early elections — something Maduro has steadfastly refused to consider.