As head of the country’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó invoked a clause in Venezuela’s constitution: If a president claims victory in a fraudulent election, the head of the National Assembly may become interim president until free elections are held.
U.S. officials told Guaidó they would back him if he moved ahead. On Jan. 22, Vice President Mike Pence released a video aimed at reaching the thousands planning mass protests against Maduro’s rule the next day: “We are with you.”
The next afternoon, Guaidó raised his hand in a Caracas public square and swore the oath of presidency. In a dramatic moment, thousands of supporters raised their hands in solidarity.
Ricardo Ball, a financial adviser and entrepreneur in Caracas, described the scene to Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute in a live-streamed video call a week later. “It’s not him alone taking the oath,” said Ball. “It’s everyone else taking the oath alongside him in support of the constitution.”
But not all Venezuelans rejoiced: Maduro called the events a coup, and the leader of the country’s armed forces declared the military’s loyalty to Maduro. The move was seen as a blow to hopes for a quick and peaceful transition of power.
On the Sunday after Guaidó took the oath of office in Caracas, state-run television stations aired footage of Maduro towering over dozens of kneeling soldiers at Fort Paramacay in central Venezuela. Maduro boomed: “Are you coup plotters?” The armed soldiers boomed back: “No!” The dictator responded: “Traitors never, loyalty, always.”
On the same morning, Guaidó attended Mass in a Catholic church in Caracas, flanked by his wife and mother. He later pleaded with the military, “Please, brothers, don’t attack our people.”
Potential violence is a deep-rooted fear for those facing a military that has cracked down on protests in the past. And some analysts note that turning against Maduro won’t be easy even if military members want to support Guaidó. Advisers from Cuba head Maduro’s personal security, and they run intelligence operations to ferret out potential traitors in the military ranks.
For soldiers willing to back Guaidó, the interim president has underscored a law the National Assembly has passed to offer amnesty to military members who support the new government. The offer of amnesty could rankle Venezuelans who have endured military abuses, but Guaidó likely sees it as vital incentive to persuade soldiers to back his interim presidency.
In the days after his oath, Guaidó’s supporters made treks to military outposts to distribute copies of the amnesty law to soldiers patrolling on duty. Some reported that the soldiers threw the copies back at them or burned the papers while they looked on.
Still, pressure mounted on Maduro: Leaders in most Latin American nations threw their support behind Guaidó, and some leaders of the European Union said they would back Guaidó if Maduro didn’t call for new elections by Feb. 3.