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Juan Guaidó: If Maduro arrests me, it ‘would be a coup d’etat’

Venezuela’s opposition leader prepares to reenter the country and make his final push against the regime.

Many nations have recognized Juan Guaidó , center, as the rightful interim ruler of Venezuela.
Many nations have recognized Juan Guaidó , center, as the rightful interim ruler of Venezuela. (Daniel Tapia/Reuters)

Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s compelling and popular interim president is the first real threat to the authoritarian regime of President Nicolás Maduro, who has refused to yield power after what the legislature called an invalid election. In search of momentum for the opposition, Guaidó left his country two weeks ago to take meetings with foreign leaders (including with Vice President Pence) in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Ecuador. Venezuelan exiles in those nations poured into the streets to greet him. But if he was expecting the military to abandon the regime and support his claim to the presidency, it didn’t work. What will happen when Guaidó, 35, returns to Venezuela? Maduro’s regime may arrest him, or perhaps he’ll galvanize Maduro’s backers and win their loyalty. More likely, the standoff will continue. Guaidó talked with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth as he prepares to reenter his country. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: Why did you leave Venezuela?

A: I [initially] left to attend the humanitarian assistance gathering where Colombia’s President Iván Duque as well as Paraguay’s President Mario Abdo Benítez were present.

Q: To leave was a big risk. Did you make the right call?

A: My international visit has been very important to consolidate support from regional leaders — not just for humanitarian assistance but to continue to pressure Maduro.

Q:  Do you see any way to get rid of Maduro?

A: I see many ways of getting rid of Maduro. He’s completely isolated, so much so that his only recourse is to continue to repress and use force against the people of Venezuela. The use of force is by paramilitary groups, it isn’t even the National Guard.

Q: Is the army split? There were 200 defections from the military, but many officers have not defected.

A: Two hundred is only a small portion. The vast majority of the armed forces, 80 percent, support me and reject the regime. It’s just the top people who continue to hold on. There is a lot of fear, because of the types of tactics that they’re using.

Q: Is it possible to get rid of Maduro without the use of force?

A: In Venezuela, we have tried everything. We have protested, we have continued to push in every direction for a peaceful transition. Right now, I see three scenarios. First, that an election is allowed to take place in a free and transparent manner. That’s what we’re working for as soon as possible. Second is some sort of sui generis transition with Chavismo [parts of the regime]. That’s something that’s difficult to imagine at this point.

Q: A transition that includes the military or parts of the regime?

A: I’m referring to something like what happened on January 23 of 1958 — the date when parts of the military removed the dictator [Marcos Pérez Jiménez]. Lastly, there is an option where the military could get on the side of the constitution and of Guaidó and of the resistance, and it could stop the usurpation. That’s the option that uses force, but it comes from within.

Q: So a military coup, so to speak?

A: Yes, but the military gets on the side of the constitution — so it’s not a military coup. It’s ceasing the usurpation. It is Maduro right now who is the biggest impediment for a peaceful solution to take place.

Q: Is it true that the Cuban agents torture the armed forces if they try to even contact the opposition?

A: Yes, it’s definitely true. Torture is one of the things that is being used to dissuade any sort of dissent in the armed forces, and the Cubans are definitely part of it — the G2 Cubans, their intelligence service.

Q: Do you have people who you talk to in the military?

A: There are communications channels, but obviously it is a difficult situation, because of the dictatorship and the repression that takes place within the armed forces. It has taken time to build trust among parties.

Q: Will you offer Maduro and his top generals amnesty to dislodge them from power? Will you guarantee them safe passage and access to their money?

A: We have offered amnesty and guarantees to both military and civilians who are part of the regime but who are willing to help restore democracy in Venezuela.

Q: Not a general amnesty?

A: No. Only to those who take those steps.

Q: Can you get rid of Maduro without promising him safe passage and a new home elsewhere?

A: Offering amnesty to Maduro is an option. Bear in mind that the only crimes to which amnesty cannot be applied are crimes against humanity.

Q: You started off as a student leader, and then you ran for congress in 2015. You took over the Popular Will party when its leader was put under house arrest in 2019. As leader of the National Assembly, the only democratically elected institution in the country, you declared yourself interim president in January after the Lima Group, a group of nations from the region, said they would not recognize Maduro's election. Now you're world-famous and recognized by 50 governments. How would you explain who you are to the American people?

A: I am a young man from humble origins who has had the opportunity to serve my country, to resist this dictatorship, along with [other opposition leaders] . . . . Venezuela has immense talents and resources, and we can help rebuild our democracy.

Q: Are you happy with what the Trump administration has done to help the Venezuelan opposition? Would you like President Trump to do more?

A: President Trump’s leadership has been very important to this effort of restoring democracy to Venezuela.

Q: Are the U.S. sanctions enough, or do you need more, like military intervention?

A: The sanctions have been a key element in making sure that those who have violated human rights and are guilty of corruption have a clear consequence to their actions. They have also been key to helping protect the assets of the Venezuelan people.

Q: Not having them stolen, you mean?

A: Yes, and to try to dissuade these people from continuing to steal. In terms of next steps, Vice President Pence has said and I have said that all options are on the table when it comes to restoring democracy in Venezuela.

Q: Do you think some kind of force needs to be used in this situation?

A: We all want a peaceful solution to this situation, but this is a criminal regime that will only cede power under immense pressure. Venezuela is in a very precarious situation with the hyperinflation and the suffering of the Venezuelan people, so change is urgent. There is no food; there is a humanitarian crisis and great suffering by the Venezuelan people.

Q: Are you going to visit Europe — France or Germany — before you go home to Venezuela? Will you visit the United States?

A: I do have plans to go to Europe and other countries in Latin America, but I am first going back to Venezuela.

Q: Are you worried you'll be detained or arrested?

A: There are definitely a lot of risks to going back. The exercise of politics is criminalized in Venezuela. But I’m willing to go back and take that risk. . . . If [I were arrested], it would be the usurper’s [Maduro’s] last mistake. This would be a coup d’etat. And it would be harshly and strongly rejected by both the Venezuelan people and the international community.

Q: Do you believe you are losing popularity by being out of the country? You are so popular inside Venezuela.

A: No, not at all. We have been strengthened, both internally and externally, because of this tour. That’s why I’m prepared to go back home.

Q: I saw the pictures of the masses of Venezuelans migrants who came out to meet you in every Latin American country you visited. Did you ever expect to see such a welcome?

A: That’s really happening because of the massive crisis that’s happening in Venezuela. I have taken on this responsibility and it has awakened a lot of hope for change in the Venezuelan population, both inside the country and out.

Q: How will you organize a free and fair election if you do come to power, especially considering the three million Venezuelans who have had to leave the country? The Maduro and Hugo Chávez regimes changed the electoral system, so it's not going to be so easy.

A: One of the first points is to completely reform the National Electoral Council. Furthermore, I’m going to make sure that all constitutional rights are guaranteed to elect and be elected. That is to say, all the Venezuelans who are abroad should be properly registered, and all the people within the country should be also be properly registered. It’s important to make sure that no candidates are barred from running. Moreover, it’s very important to have the international community present observing the election to make sure its completely transparent.

Q: You won't be able to do that overnight, right?

A: No, it will definitely take time. Our best experts have looked at this and determined that once [Maduro is gone from power], it could take from six to nine months.

Q: The economy of Venezuela is in a free fall. Are you concerned about the impact of new U.S. sanctions on the population? Do you have a vision as to what you would do as president to rebuild your country? Do you think that Venezuela would need a Marshall Plan?

A: The economy was in a free fall before the sanctions. There has been a 53 percent GDP drop and a 1 million percent inflation rate. There was already a very bad situation before the sanctions. What we are worried about, what we are trying to move forward on, is using our natural resources, using the trust we have built with the international community to have access to refinancing.

Twitter: @LallyWeymouth

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