For about an hour, it looked as though the short, brilliant career of Juan Guaido was over.

Guaido, a youthful Venezuelan opposition leader, was driving to a rally outside Caracas on January 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!" Guaido's supporters tweeted, as a video of the capture ricocheted around the internet.

And then, mysteriously, Guaido was freed. Condemnation of the operation — carried out by President Nicolas Maduro's feared intelligence agency — poured in from around the hemisphere. Guaido told supporters: "We are not afraid!"

Guaido, 35, who was virtually unknown abroad just two months ago, is now recognised as the interim president of Venezuela by most Western countries. The low-key engineer elected to congress in 2015 is fielding calls from leaders and addressing protests.

Advertisement

The story of Guaido's rise involves stealthy travel, diplomatic manoeuvers in Washington, Canada and South America, and months of strategising 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 US President Donald 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 towards economic collapse. "He wanted to know what we were doing and how we could do more," recalled Fernando Cutz, a former staffer.

But perhaps the most crucial event in Guaido's ascension was a decision on January 4 by Canada and a dozen Latin American countries not to recognise Maduro when he was sworn in for a second term on January 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 recognise 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 Guaido.

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.

Guaido'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 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 brother Gustavo said. In 2007, Juan Guaido helped lead student protests against the Chavez government.

Advertisement

Guaido soon began working with Leopoldo Lopez, a Harvard-educated former mayor who formed the Popular Will movement in 2009. Lopez was jailed on what were widely viewed as trumped-up charges of inciting violence, but he was released to house arrest in 2017.

Last year, Lopez began an intense round of strategy sessions with Guaido and opposition activists such as Borges, Maria Corina Machado and Antonio Ledezma, using encrypted channels.

National Guardsmen fire rubber bullets at protesters in Caracas. Photo / AP
National Guardsmen fire rubber bullets at protesters in Caracas. Photo / AP

Their strategy was to refuse to recognise Maduro after his January 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 National Assembly the temporary head of state.

Lopez'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, Guaido was chosen in November as its standard-bearer. "Guaido's low-key background helped people trust him, and he also had a good relationship with other parties," said a senior party official.

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.

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 per cent, food and medicine were running out, and at least three million Venezuelans had fled the country. Within Venezuela, there seemed to be no political figure able to rally citizens. In mid-December, 97 per cent of Venezuelans surveyed had never heard of Guaido, according to Delphos, a Caracas-based polling firm. Four weeks later, nearly 60 per cent supported him.

Before crowds, he projected resolve and cheerful informality. "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 [Fabiana], and he has a cute little daughter [Miranda Eugenia]. The image is ideal," said Felix Seijas, head of Delphos.

Guaido visited Washington in December, crossing the border with Colombia to avoid detention. Having the backing of figures such as Lopez "allowed him to instantly plug into networks that the opposition had taken years to develop," said Dan Erikson, a White House adviser during the Obama Administration.

Guaido met Luis Almagro, the head of the Organisation of American States, and a proponent of turning over power to the National Assembly leader. Guaido later phoned Almagro and said he would need the support of the US, Colombia and Brazil, according to a senior OAS official.

Through the first three weeks of January, Venezuelan opposition leaders quietly sent emissaries to foreign governments and the military to gauge reaction to Guaido declaring himself president on January 23.. Vice-President Mike Pence called Guaido, pledging US backing if the Venezuelan followed constitutional order, a White House official said.

Guaido'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 also daunting challenges in setting up eventual elections.

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," Guaido said.