Juan Guaidó: Venezuela’s Interim President

On January 23, 1958, Venezuelans came out to protest, overthrowing the military dictatorship governing the country at the time. Democracy and prosperity followed, making Venezuela one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated countries in the region. Yesterday, just like 61 years ago, Venezuelans marched against tyranny, seeking to regain their fundamental civil rights and raise their voices to support both the Venezuelan Constitution and the leader of a new interim government: Juan Guaidó.

As I explained in my previous article, according to Articles 233, 333 and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution, Juan Guaidó is well within his power as president of the National Assembly to assume the presidency of Venezuela on a provisional basis. Not only were the presidential elections held last year unfree and unfair, but more than 50 countries did not recognize their results—leaving Maduro with no domestic or international legitimacy as president.

In defiance of threats to his freedom and safety, Juan Guaidó publicly took the oath of office in front of yesterday’s historic nationwide protest. More than 20 countries, including the United States, Canada, Denmark, Georgia, and Latin American nations wisely moved quickly to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela. Other countries will soon follow, including members of the European Union. Multilateral institutions, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the Organization of American States (OAS), have expressed their intention to work with Guaidó’s administration moving forward. From a constitutional, humanitarian, and democratic perspective—and according to international law—there is no option left for the international community but to recognize Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela. However, other traditional allied countries, including Russia, Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia still recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president.

Q1: Who is President Juan Guaidó?

A1: Guaidó, a 35-year-old politician with a degree in engineering, is from Vargas, a coastal state. Leopoldo Lopez, Voluntad Popular’s founder and a well-known political prisoner, has been Guaidó’s political mentor. Earlier in his political career, Guaidó was part of a student-led political movement that protested former president Hugo Chavez’s unsuccessful attempt to change the country’s constitution in 2007. Now known as the “2007 generation,” Guaidó is part of a group that is eager for change, as they have not seen a free country in almost two decades.

Guaidó was little known among Venezuelans until he became president of the National Assembly earlier this year. Guaidó was elected unanimously following a coalition “pact” to rotate the National Assembly’s presidency every January 5. Despite the Venezuelan people’s frustration with the divided and exhausted opposition, Guaidó’s youth provides refreshing, much-needed leadership.

Q2: What is at stake?

A2: The citizens of Venezuela face an increasingly dire situation, and there is no end in sight yet. Hyperinflation is expected to exceed 10 million percent in 2019. Venezuelans lost 24 pounds on average last year due to lack of food, and by all indications this year will only be worse. Meanwhile, the health system has collapsed, and there are rampant medicine shortages.

This is not just a humanitarian crisis, but also a matter of regional security; the Venezuelan exodus is expected to reach more than 5.3 million by the end of this year. Maduro’s regime has moved from a dictatorial regime that violates civil liberties to a mafia state that actively participates in illegal activities. Complicit in a wide range of smuggling and trafficking activities, Maduro’s inner circle has helped to dismantle the country’s institutions and rule of law. Seventy-five public officials, including former vice president Tareck El Aissami, and Venezuelan citizens have been targeted by U.S. and international sanctions for corruption and drug trafficking activities.

Q3: How should the United States and the international community respond?

A3: There are important legal, political, and diplomatic implications of both not recognizing Maduro and recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate provisional president. Constitutional lawyer and CSIS senior associate Gustavo Tarre is the first ambassador to be appointed by Guaidó’s interim government. Ambassador Tarre will represent Venezuela at the OAS—whose secretary general, Luis Almagro, has already welcomed the initiative. Other ambassadors will soon be appointed, especially to those countries who have recognized Guaidó as president. According to the Venezuelan Constitution and international law, even if Maduro decides to remain in office, his powers will progressively be taken away.

An oil embargo would be counterproductive and could undermine Guaidó’s leadership within the country. Instead, oil payments and contracts should be redirected to Guaidó’s administration and the National Assembly. Similarly, humanitarian aid should be directed through the National Assembly through a civil society actor such as the Catholic Church or a UN agency—in conjunction with an organized Venezuelan diaspora organization. It is urgent to distribute aid and take steps to ensure that the aid reaches its intended recipients in an efficient and transparent manner. Cutting-edge technologies, such as public blockchains or decentralized applications, can help, as they are open networks that can receive and send transactions from anywhere and anyone in the world.

In spite of Maduro’s statement severing diplomatic ties with the United States, Secretary of State Pompeo has declared that the United States will maintain its diplomatic presence in Venezuela, arguing that Maduro does not have the authority to expel them. Maduro and his inner circle may not respect democracy, but even they would not go so far as to violate international laws governing the safety and security of the diplomatic community.

Q4: What will happen to Venezuela’s state assets abroad?

A4: As the only legitimate institution in the country, the National Assembly should be able to control and use Venezuela’s foreign funds and assets—at least within the jurisdictions of those countries that have recognized Guaidó as the interim president. Venezuela’s state assets include embassies and consular buildings, CITGO (a subsidiary of state-owned oil company PDVSA), bank accounts, and real estate assets. Host countries should freeze Venezuelan accounts and funds to curb embezzlement and corruption by Maduro’s illegitimate government.

Host countries should consider freezing accounts and funds to curb embezzlement and corruption by Maduro’s illegitimate government .

More than ever, Venezuelans need help and support to regain their liberty. A crucial step for the international community is to ensure that President Guaidó can manage the nation’s international relations and assets, as is his legitimate duty. Once Guaidó and the National Assembly start taking the essential first steps on the road to recovery—providing urgently needed humanitarian relief and security—they may finally be able to give Venezuelans a chance to participate in truly free and fair elections.

Moises Rendon is an associate fellow and associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The author recognizes important inputs from Mia Kazman who is an intern with the CSIS Americas Program.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Moises Rendon

Moises Rendon

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Americas Program