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Opposition Politician Vows To Lead Venezuela Back To Democracy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Venezuela, where this month President Nicolas Maduro began another six-year term, even though there are all kinds of questions about the integrity of the vote that brought him to power. Numerous countries, including the United States, refuse to recognize his authoritarian regime. As John Otis reports, a young opposition politician is now promising to lead Venezuela back to democracy.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Juan Guaido is the newly elected head of Venezuela's congress, the only branch of government controlled by the opposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At rallies like this one in Caracas, Guaido has been drumming up support for anti-government protests scheduled for tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: There's also speculation that Juan Guaido will declare himself acting president. Venezuela's constitution states that the head of congress takes over should the presidency become vacant, as the opposition claims it has under Maduro.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: At the rally, Guaido called for a transitional government that would hold three elections within 30 days. All this is breathing life into Venezuela's beleaguered opposition. Its most prominent leaders have been imprisoned, forced into exile or banned from running for office. Guaido is just 35 and, until this month, was relatively unknown. And he's impressed many Venezuelans. They include Benjamin Scharifker, a leading intellectual and opposition activist.

BENJAMIN SCHARIFKER: The pieces are starting to fit together for a peaceful transition in Venezuela.

OTIS: But Maduro, who's led Venezuela into food shortages and hyperinflation, is digging in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a speech, he said, it appears that a group of little boys has taken control of the opposition and is trying to destabilize the country. On Monday, Venezuela's Supreme Court, which is stacked with Maduro allies, declared Juan Guaido and the entire congressional leadership illegitimate.

Last week, security forces briefly detained Guaido. Troops also attacked protesters in 2014 and 2017 in violent clashes that left nearly 200 dead. That has sparked fears of another bloodbath at tomorrow's planned marches.

JUAN ANDRES MEJIA: In the recent past, we've seen security forces killed innocent protesters. So what we're worried about, is for that to happen again.

OTIS: That's opposition congressman Juan Andres Mejia, who insists that tomorrow's protests will go forward. In addition, the opposition is urging the military to switch sides. The top brass has been showered with perks from Maduro and remains loyal to him. But last week, congress passed an amnesty law for officers who turn against Maduro. Early Monday, dozens of National Guard troops in Caracas did just that after raiding an arms depot.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED VENEZUELAN NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In this video published on social media, one of the rebel troops urges all Venezuelans to rise up against the Maduro dictatorship. But the mutiny was quickly put down, and 25 of the rebels were arrested. Bruce Bagley, a Venezuela scholar at the University of Miami, says tougher international sanctions may be needed to help force out Maduro. He suggests a halt to purchases of oil, Venezuela's main export.

BRUCE BAGLEY: It may well require more severe economic sanctions coordinated - right? - as there were against South Africa with apartheid because, in some ways, this is as dire a situation as South African apartheid.

OTIS: Meanwhile, Brazil, Canada and the Organization of American States, have inferred that Guaido is now Venezuela's legitimate head of government. The United States is expected to do the same should Guaido declare himself president. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

(SOUNDBITE OF HUMINAL'S "BAD BABOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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