‘We Need to End the Dictatorship’: An Interview with Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó

The interim president talks to Bloomberg Línea about the challenges of ending President Maduro’s rule

Juan Guaidó in an interview with Bloomberg Línea.
January 20, 2022 | 03:35 PM

Caracas — Juan Guaidó is not the same man he was three years ago. You notice it in his dress, in his speech, and even in his graying hair. His spaces have changed too. After having had five of his offices raided, he receives Bloomberg Línea in the lounge of his home to offer a presidential-style interview in the name of the interim government he has led since Jan. 23, 2019, and of which he was ratified as leader until 2023 on Jan. 5.

But time has not passed in vain, and amid achievements and failures that he today acknowledges, Guaidó talks about the construction of a mandate that has been unanimously renewed by the National Parliament and which continues to enjoy the support of Washington and other countries.

But that doesn’t mean things are stable, Guaidó says.

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Guaidó knows that maintaining unity among the opposition remains the big challenge, as well as facing up to the exhaustion that the road this far has implied, and which is reflected across the whole country, given the expectation generated for political change and the achievement, as Guaidó has always maintained, of free and fair elections.

And those elections could be closer this year with the application of a referendum of revocation of mandate against President Nicolás Maduro.

Q: It is almost exactly three years since you were invested as the interim president of Venezuela. What is different about Juan Guaidó today compared to the man of that moment?

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A: That’s a very good question, because when we were sworn in in 2019 there was not the diplomatic recognition, there were not the mechanisms of pressure that exist today against the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro, we did not have the capacity of international action, the sanctions were not in place that are in place today for the human rights violations and the corruption carried out by the dictatorship. There were no trials in the International Criminal Court. I run through that brief list to differentiate because today when we look back at 2019 we take for granted the existence of a government in charge, and it has not been like that, but rather since 2019 we have been constructing capabilities, gathering together a majority, unifying the alternative democracy, under international pressure and achieving access to guarantees for all sectors, which we now call an amnesty law. But we have insisted on following this road via the possibility of an agreement, and we have been openly calling for more than a year for a progressive lifting of the sanctions as we move toward an agreement. What I am saying is that the strategy for freeing ourselves from a dictatorship has to do with organization, mobilization, building a majority, the exercise of that majority, international pressure and the possibility of a real solution, and that is what we have maintained.

Q. During this time we have come to understand that Venezuelans are facing a regime that has more characteristics of a criminal organization than a dictatorship, than a traditional dictatorship or authoritarianism that simply controls the territory, controls the state.

A. Maduro doesn’t govern, Maduro can’t supply gasoline, water, electricity, he has no way of repelling the irregular groups that are present in Venezuela for various reasons. Some of them work with him, for the state, and who have been able to procure financing for their structures or criminal corporations.

So, there is a dose of harsh reality, this year, of what we have to face and what the dictatorship is willing to face. The dictatorship has murdered, has tortured, the dictatorship today is accused of crimes against humanity. I want to put this in perspective. We are facing a regime that is like the Bolshevik or Gaddafi regimes, which are the most recent ones to have been in this situation of being criminal or of being accused of crimes against humanity, that is what we Venezuelans are facing. The good news is that we are here, we have got this far, we have resisted democratically and that is also interesting. We have not given up our petitions and demand for free elections. They have wanted to pigeonhole us into one thesis or another, but that has to do with analysts or groups with political and even economic interests who are behind that. The interest of the Venezuelan people is to get out of this tragedy through free elections, that is what I said on January 5, 2019, when I talked about the end of the usurpation, for a transitional government and free elections. That is the mechanism to guarantee governability and stability in order to really recover democracy in Venezuela.

I have just been unanimously ratified by the entire National Parliament (...) that is to say that any opinion of any leader, regardless of its weight, is an opinion of that leader; the fact speaks for itself.

Juan Guaidó, Venezuela's interim president.

The reality is, we need to end the dictatorship, the usurpation that has put us in this situation, there has to be a transition to institutionalize or re-institutionalize Venezuela. In fact, this is one of items on the agenda we were discussing in Mexico, as the main point. The balance of the Venezuelan judicial system. Beyond the democratic resistance we have had up until 2022, we have had the natural wear and tear resulting from a very tough process, which implied jail, persecution. We are here today in this interview, among other reasons, because five of my offices have been raided, we have been stripped, which started with the legislative process in 2020, when they militarized the country.

When we look back, we take everything for granted, this has been a construction, the clearest example of all this is Barinas [where an opposition candidate won the local governorship elections on Jan. 9, 2022], of the courage shown by the people of Barinas in defending what they believe in, and beyond the change, their dignity, their integrity. I believe that this differentiates us today and I believe that we have advantages with respect to 2019, not only this global relationship, this clarity in our petition and demand that is currently simplified in achieving a free and fair election, that the whole world is accompanying us, but also when we talk about wear and tear, it is not of the interim government or the opposition and the democratic alternative, it is the country, and within the country, the PSUV. I believe that the biggest example of the wearing out of any political party, and pay attention to this, because they are the ones who manage the resources of the state, which is still kidnapped, is the dictatorship, with 18 ministers, 24 or more generals on election day, all the resources of the state concentrated in a federal entity, public money, and they could not. Where is the [ruling] United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and the capacity of mobilization they had, where is the capacity to convince in Barinas itself, at the heart of where ‘Chavism’ [Barinas is the home state of former President Hugo Chávez] began? In 22 years we had not won a governorship in Barinas, in 50 days we won two [the election in November 2021, won by opposition candidate Freddy Superlano, was suspended], and that speaks of this difference in 2022, and the Venezuelan people wanting to achieve a change in the country.

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Q: In the escalation of actions undertaken by the Venezuelan opposition throughout 23 years of ‘Chavismo’, perhaps the highest point has been the creation of an interim government, the one you lead, and which after offering so much opportunity for political change in the country, with international support, appears to have lost momentum, and even the acceptance and trust of the population. Do you see it like this? What has happened? What were the mistakes?

A: First of all, we made a lot of mistakes. I want to emphasize that we, within the mechanisms of democracy, faced a dictatorship, that is to say, we created an interim government that was unprecedented in the world, that is to say, there is no other country today living in a dictatorship that is exercising with democratic mechanisms the defense of its democracy as Venezuela is doing. We see what is happening in Nicaragua, which is seeking recognition. The first thing to achieve is that recognition, it was a first victory for us to achieve the characterization of the Maduro regime as what it is: a dictatorship. This allowed international organizations such as the UN to be in Venezuela, to issue reports that clearly state that Maduro violates human rights, which also allowed the rapid progress by the International Criminal Court, but which are still slow for Venezuelan society. So we have had , in three years, something of the initial sensation of justice.

And of course, there were mistakes made, a product not only of the wear and tear and the immense expectation that was generated, to get out immediately from under the dictatorship, and it has been a much longer process than we wanted, which has implied again a wear and tear of the democratic alternative, but more of the dictatorship, and this is interesting, because I think that Barinas is the example of the generalized wear and tear of the regime. But there are things that we have to improve. As long as dictators in the region see the impunity that is taking place in Venezuela, in Cuba, in Nicaragua, what is strengthened, democracy or the populist temptation, not only in Latin America but in the world? It is our responsibility as Venezuelans to organize the majority, to exercise that majority, as we did recently in Barinas, or as we did in 2015 or in 2017 in the streets of Venezuela, by not validating Maduro’s fraud. I am talking about the last seven years, the mobilization, protests, voting, and not cooperating or participating in a fraudulent process as in 2018 or 2020.

I believe that the challenge is to understand the dimensions of the dictatorship we are facing and the need for guarantees, that is why we are going to insist on a comprehensive and national salvation agreement, which is also understanding the mistakes we have made, for example with the Amnesty Law. We understand that it was not enough, to give guarantees to all sectors. This is both a recognition of and a correction of mistakes, because, again, nobody becomes president with a manual in their hand on how to get out of a dictatorship like this one. We are constantly correcting, innovating as well, because I think this is democratic innovation, what we are doing in Venezuela. We have tried to correct and we have done it simultaneously and I believe that the most important of all is unity, because we have consolidated it and we have had great successes in the past, the most obvious case is 2015, in that year nobody thought we could win two-thirds of the vote, but our unity was much stronger and more powerful, with a clear call to action: vote, participate, mobilize, and with that we can free ourselves of the dictatorship. There has been great expectation on the part of Venezuelans since then, and we are indebted to them, we have to pay them back, we have to correct the mistakes. Barinas is an example of this, we have to renew the leadership, we have to strengthen the unified platform, generate consensus and build unifying politics.

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Q: Analysts have said that your challenges are merely political and not economic, precisely because of your lack of authority in state institutions. With the recovery of assets abroad, how do you think that the government in charge can bring changes in tangible economic terms? Do you plan to use the recovered resources for that purpose?

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A: Our proposal to achieve economic change in Venezuela, to achieve confidence and foreign investment, has to do with achieving legal certainty, and confidence in Venezuelan society. This can only be achieved with a change, the other challenge is to address the serious humanitarian emergency generated by the dictatorship. To generate governance and certainty, and the stability to promote foreign investment, with the understanding that there will be legal certainty. The challenge is to alleviate the emergency to attend to the origin and the root of the catastrophe. Assistance and humanitarian measures are not enough, nor will they be enough.

Q: In December we published an article in Bloomberg Linea featuring statements from two sources in the opposition coalition that referred to fractures within the opposition and Henrique Capriles’ attempts to replace you as leader. What is your opinion about such fractures, and Capriles’ intentions?

A: I have just been unanimously ratified by the entire National Parliament as President of the National Assembly, that includes the votes of absolutely all the parties. Any opinion of any leader, no matter how important they may be, is an opinion of that leader, the fact speaks for itself. The unanimous ratification by the National Parliament does not only speak of an endorsement of a person, but the ratification of a policy, the defense of the Republic, or of what is left of the Republic, by those of us who defend it with strength, because as I said last year, what is left of the Republic is deposited in the National Parliament, and we will defend it. To pretend to surrender that idea is also to surrender to the dictatorship, so for us it was key, that it was not an endorsement of Juan Guaidó but of the policy of the defense of the Republic, to achieve free and fair elections in the shortest possible time.

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Q: Do you believe that the conditions exist for negotiations to resume in Mexico, and do you think that a solution could come out of them? What could that solution be?

A: I believe in an urgent national salvation agreement. The conditions exist to reach such an agreement. What is more surprising is the continuation of a dictatorship without popular support, that has been accused internationally of crimes against humanity. We are proposing a democratic alternative, demanding a solution to the conflict, and the majority of the country is looking for solutions and the possibility of an agreement.

There exist the conditions for an agreement. The dictatorship should be thinking things twice, especially those groups within the dictatorship that clearly know that Nicolás Maduro does not have any popular support.

Juan Guaidó, interim president of Venezuela.

I believe that there are the conditions for an agreement. Venezuela needs an agreement, it needs a solution to the conflict, which is achieved through free and fair presidential elections, with guarantees for all sectors, and which implies attending to and balancing the Venezuelan judicial system so that due process is respected in all cases. The dictatorship should be thinking things twice, especially those groups within the dictatorship that clearly know that Nicolás Maduro does not have any popular support, and much less his envoys.

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Q: Do you believe that a political change will be achieved through an agreement in Mexico as well as a high level of participation, as was seen in Barinas?

A: The dictatorship is not going to happily accept that they are a minority, they have demonstrated it again and again, they demonstrated it in 2015, when they snatched Amazonas, and they superimposed the National Constituent Assembly over the National Assembly. We do not expect anything different from the dictatorship. We have to generate the conditions and the tools, with those capacities that we have built, from 2019 to date, to be able to make the difference. We understand the methodology of the dictatorship: persecution, censorship, removing competition when we win a space. What corresponds to us, in the exercise of the majority, is the possibility of fair elections, the possibility of an agreement that generates guarantees and generates certainties. I do believe that in the end there can be an agreement, a national election that disputes power, that is to say, a free and fair presidential election, a plebiscite event, where Venezuelans decide that Maduro should leave, these are tools that we have to use with confidence at this moment. Barinas did not change the national reality, but it did change the expectation and the struggle and hopes of Venezuelans, which was what gave us the advantage in 2019.

Q: The victory in Barinas has motivated a sector of the opposition to again follow the electoral route as an option for political change in Venezuela, by ending ‘Chavism’ with votes.

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A. The electoral route has always been the demand of the people. This began in 2015 when we were the majority and it was ratified in 2017, when we were seeking a presidential election with conditions, but the dictatorship denied us that. Free elections have always been demanded. Barinas showed it again, by telling the truth to citizens, that the National Electoral Council is under the tutelage of the dictatorship. There was no way to supervise the process. The dictatorship decides who is or who is not disqualified. But telling the truth does not discourage voting, it stimulates the struggle. People know what they are facing, they generate clear and firm expectations.

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Again, we must fight for the conditions for free elections, now. What we cannot do is to be so innocent to think that, just by talking about free elections, they are going to happen, just by hoping that by 2024 a free election is going to happen. That was Venezuela in 2018 and Venezuela in 2021, or Barinas in 2021. We have to fight actively, mobilize, seek an integral agreement, improve the democratic alternative, renew the leadership team, strengthen the united platform, call for mobilization and social and political demands to achieve an election that generates a dispute for power in Venezuela, and with good leadership be able to achieve the transition. Again, I am not an analyst, I do not pretend to be one, I respect them very much, but all of them, naturally, do it from a biased point of view, and some of them with vested interests. Our only interest is to listen to that criticism that we have to take constructively, for the good of Venezuela. But the route is free elections, I did not invent it, it is a mechanism of struggle, and our mechanism of struggle has been non-violent at all times. We face a dictatorship, but we are embracing the Constitution in a non-violent struggle, because we believe in that and because it is the best mechanism for an orderly transition, and will allow us to heal the wounds more quickly, and which are open.

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Q: Could a recall referendum be included in free elections this year?

A: We need an election to get rid of Maduro, and the good news for all Venezuelans is that the one who has an expiration date, even within his own logic, is Maduro. There is a very intense debate in the PSUV, because they have an expiration date. We need an election to get rid of Maduro and be able to dispute power. We are demanding a presidential election that they owe us since 2018. Now, can we activate a plebiscitary mechanism so that the people decide that Maduro leaves? We have to activate it, the problem is how to activate it. We Venezuelans cannot trap ourselves in a bureaucratic mechanism to go and tell Maduro if we want him out or not, we already know his answer, he told us in 2016, he stole the Recall Referendum from us, the challenge is to activate it, the challenge is to produce the election, a prompt presidential election or a plebiscite that will remove the regime, and I am very careful not to say recall, and I want to explain why. It is not because I am afraid of the word ‘recall’ or because it is a mechanism, it is because we cannot confuse the objective with the mechanism. The mechanism is a free and fair election, the objective is to get rid of Maduro. If we manage to activate a process like this, I have no doubt that Barinas will be multiplied by 24 plus 1, which is the diaspora that has to participate as well. If we name the diaspora as a state, it would be the largest in numbers. Now, let us not get trapped in a false dilemma, to vote or not to vote, that is not the dilemma, we want to participate, to mobilize, to vote, we need to defend the vote and the will of the people, as happened in Barinas, twice. The challenge is to defend the will of the people and for it to be expressed in a majority manner. To look for those safe spaces of citizen participation so that they can reflect their differences. To confine ourselves only to the mechanism would be to give fruit to the dictatorship, it would be to facilitate the narrative of the dictatorship.

Q: If you finally opt for a mechanism such as a recall and the Maduro government manages to block it through a court order, don’t you think this could cause the electoral ground to be lost again?

A: We should not be afraid to try and act, and excuse the colloquialism or the metaphor, but if your son or daughter or a loved one misses a penalty kick you would hardly tell him to never try again, because they have already failed and will be frustrated. On the contrary, you tell them to kick harder, to study the goalkeeper, to exercise. What we cannot afford is to stay at the attempt stage, or not take corrective measures. We know that with the goalkeeper, or that judicially, they are going to want to assassinate us, that is why we cannot deludedly go like lambs to the slaughterhouse, we have to understand that we are facing a judicial firing squad, of repression, of persecution and even economic repression, and with that kick we are exercising our right. We have to try, and I am not talking about a recall, I am talking about an election that achieves change. Frustration is part of the process, obviously we have to try to achieve the election. Let us imagine that we activate this process by pressure, by an agreement.

Q: Threats have been made against you, but the Maduro administration has not imprisoned you, as has happened before with other opposition leaders, and some analysts attribute that to the U.S. government’s support for the interim government. Still, it is a latent risk, how far are you willing to take it?

A: My limit is physical, it is my life, my limit with respect to the risk that we have taken, my family and I, is physical, so I am willing to continue until we achieve the objective that we have set for ourselves in Venezuela. So the position came with the risks. It is part of the duty of the position. Nobody exercises their role believing that they can be kidnapped, killed, or tortured. In my case it is like that, we have been victims of that, my family and my work environment, but I believe that Venezuela is worth it. We are not going to abandon our people, despite the risks.

This interview is an edited version of the original, and has been shortened for clarity and space limitations.

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