CARACAS, Venezuela — For about an hour, it looked as though the short, brilliant career of Juan Guaidó was over. Guaidó, a youthful Venezuelan opposition leader, was driving to a rally outside Caracas on Jan. 13, when someone yanked open the door of his blue Ford Explorer. Masked men clutching assault weapons grabbed him, shoved him into a white van and sped off. “It’s a kidnapping!” Guaidó’s supporters tweeted, as a video of the capture ricocheted around the Internet.
And then, mysteriously, Guaidó was freed. Condemnation of the operation — carried out by President Nicolás Maduro’s feared intelligence agency — poured in from around the hemisphere. Within hours, Guaidó was telling cheering supporters: “We are not afraid!”
“This began to create the legend of Juan Guaidó,” said Pedro Burelli, a Venezuelan opposition activist based in Washington.
Today, Guaidó, a 35-year-old politician who was virtually unknown abroad just two months ago, is recognized as the interim president of Venezuela by most Western countries. Guaidó — a low-key, baseball-loving engineer elected to congress in 2015 — is fielding calls from President Trump and other leaders and addressing massive protests. For the first time since coming to power in 2013, Maduro’s authoritarian, quasi-socialist government is in danger of falling.
The story of Guaidó’s rise involves stealthy travel, diplomatic maneuvers in Washington, Canada and South America, and months of strategizing by Venezuelan activists. But it is also the story of an accidental leader who assumed his party’s mantle at the moment when it suddenly mattered.
For Trump, Venezuela has been a priority from his first week in office, when he surprised his national security team by calling for a briefing on the oil-rich country veering toward economic collapse. “He wanted to know what we were doing and how we could do more,” recalled Fernando Cutz, a former staffer who participated in the session.
But perhaps the most crucial event in Guaidó’s ascension was a decision on Jan. 4 by Canada and a dozen Latin American countries not to recognize Maduro when he was sworn in for a second term Jan. 10. The bloc’s foreign ministers — meeting in the Peruvian capital in a forum known as the Lima Group — had already condemned last year’s Venezuelan election as fraudulent.
“The trigger was the Lima Group’s declaration,” said Julio Borges, an influential Venezuelan opposition leader exiled in Colombia. “They didn’t recognize Maduro, so it was clear executive powers had to be transferred to the legislature.”
The next day, the legislature swore in its new leader: Juan Gerardo Guaidó.
Venezuela’s opposition has long been led by wealthy light-skinned professionals who dominated politics and business before the rise of leftist Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s. Guaidó’s upbringing was more modest. The son of a commercial pilot and a teacher, he had six siblings and half-siblings. When he was 16, flash floods hit his hometown on the Caribbean coast, killing several of his friends. “The importance of resilience has been etched into my soul ever since,” he wrote recently in the New York Times.
He studied engineering at Andres Bello Catholic University, but politics quickly emerged as his passion. “He started working with these student activists, and then it became his life,” his younger brother Gustavo recalled. In 2007, Juan Guaidó helped lead student protests against the Chávez government.
Guaidó soon began working with Leopoldo López, a charismatic Harvard-educated former mayor and opposition leader who would form the Popular Will movement in 2009. López was later jailed on what were widely viewed as trumped-up charges of inciting violence, but he was released to house arrest in 2017.
This past summer, despite the presence of intelligence police around his home in Caracas, López began an intense round of strategy sessions with Guaidó and opposition activists such as Borges, María Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, using encrypted channels.
Their strategy was to refuse to recognize Maduro after his Jan. 10 inauguration. But the activists debated whether to form a transition council or do something bolder — invoke a constitutional clause to pronounce the head of the opposition-dominated congress the temporary head of state. Never mind that Maduro had largely sidelined the congress, known as the National Assembly. “We spent hours and days deciding what to do,” said Borges.
López’s Popular Will party was to assume the leadership of the congress in early January. With many of the party’s officials detained or in exile, Guaidó was chosen in November as its standard-bearer.
“Guaidó’s low-key background helped people trust him, and he also had a good relationship with other parties,” said a senior party official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities.
Suddenly, foreign countries noticed the long-squabbling opposition coming together.
“They were sending a message to us: ‘You give us this international support; we’re going to make a run at this,’ ”said a Canadian official who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. “We took them at their word.”
In Western capitals and inside Venezuela, frustration had been building with the Maduro government’s mismanagement, corruption and authoritarian style. By 2019, inflation was hurtling toward 10 million percent, food and medicine were running out, and at least 3 million Venezuelans had fled the country.
But within Venezuela, there seemed to be no political figure able to rally exasperated citizens.
“It has to come from within,” noted a White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss U.S. deliberations. “And that happened with Guaidó.”
In mid-December, 97 percent of Venezuelans surveyed had never heard of the lanky, 6-foot-2 politician, according to Delphos, a Caracas-based polling firm. Four weeks later, nearly 60 percent of the population supported him.
It wasn’t that Guaidó had an unusual message; he called for early elections, international humanitarian aid and the rule of law. But before crowds, he projected resolve and cheerful informality, responding to shouts for change with answers such as, “Yes, of course, my love. Soon!”
“He’s a typical, standard Venezuelan type. He’s brown-skinned, isn’t fat or too skinny. He’s physically appealing, as is his wife, and he has a cute little daughter. The image is ideal,” said Félix Seijas, head of Delphos.
Guaidó’s detention on Jan. 13 only increased his name recognition. Vice President Pence called the young politician to express support. “Concern for his safety and his family’s safety” was a factor in U.S. recognition of Guaidó, said a second White House official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Maduro government says the detention was a rogue operation and has arrested several intelligence agents involved.
Several weeks earlier, Guaidó had visited Washington, crossing the lawless border with Colombia to avoid detention at a Venezuelan airport, opposition leaders said. He was little known in the nation’s capital but had the backing of figures such as López. “That allowed him to instantly plug into networks that the opposition had taken years to develop,” said Dan Erikson, a White House adviser on Latin America during the Obama administration.
Among those Guaidó met was Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States — and a proponent of turning over power to the National Assembly leader. Guaidó phoned Almagro after their Dec. 14 meeting and said he would need the support of the United States, Colombia and Brazil, according to a senior OAS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political developments.
Through the first three weeks of January, Venezuelan opposition leaders quietly sent emissaries to foreign governments and the military to gauge reaction to Guaidó declaring himself president, possibly at a rally in Caracas on Jan. 23.
On the day before, Trump was briefed several times about Venezuela, according to the second White House official. Lawmakers from Florida, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, an outspoken critic of Maduro, personally urged Trump to back Guaidó. That night, Pence called Guaidó, pledging U.S. backing if the Venezuelan followed constitutional order, the White House official said.
“Obviously, we wanted to make sure the next day was peaceful, and the actions constitutional,” the official said. With the support of most of the hemisphere, Guaidó stood before a crowd on Jan. 23 and swore to assume the powers of the presidency.
Guaidó’s path forward remains difficult. Maduro has rejected his assumption of power, as have Russia and China. Leaders of the military have so far stood with Maduro, although there appears to be dissent in the ranks. There are daunting challenges in setting up eventual elections. “A transitional government is not something you decree,” Guaidó told The Washington Post on Jan. 27. “You construct it.”
Meanwhile, he faces a continued risk of detention. “I think the reason why I haven’t been jailed is probably because of all the international support and the commotion within the armed forces,” Guaidó told The Post.
In late January, he tweeted that agents from a notorious police unit went to his apartment building in Caracas, asking for his wife, Fabiana Rosales. He rushed home. To his relief, his wife and daughter Miranda Eugenia were unharmed.
Police have denied harassing the family.
Sheridan reported from Mexico City and Gearan from Washington. Carol Morello, John Hudson and Emily Rauhala in Washington and Anthony Faiola in Miami contributed to this story.