On Jan. 23, 61 years after the vicious dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was ousted, Venezuelans once again gathered for a day of democratic celebration.
Pérez Jiménez was fraudulently elected by a Constituent Assembly in 1953. His term of office was scheduled to expire in 1958. But rather than calling for free and transparent presidential elections, he was undemocratically re-elected after holding a plebiscite on his administration late in 1957. Following widespread protests and a rupture within the military establishment, the dictator left the country and Venezuela regained its freedom on Jan. 23, 1958.
Once again we face the challenge of restoring our democracy and rebuilding the country, this time amid a humanitarian crisis and the illegal retention of the presidency by Nicolás Maduro. There are severe medicine and food shortages, essential infrastructure and health systems have collapsed, a growing number of children are suffering from malnutrition, and previously eradicated illnesses have re-emerged.
We have one of the highest homicide rates in the world, which is aggravated by the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters. This tragedy has prompted the largest exodus in Latin American history, with three million Venezuelans now living abroad.
I would like to be clear about the situation in Venezuela: Mr. Maduro’s re-election on May 20, 2018, was illegitimate, as has since been acknowledged by a large part of the international community. His original six-year term was set to end on Jan. 10. By continuing to stay in office, Nicolás Maduro is usurping the presidency.
My ascension as interim president is based on Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution, according to which, if at the outset of a new term there is no elected head of state, power is vested in the president of the National Assembly until free and transparent elections take place. This is why the oath I took on Jan. 23 cannot be considered a “self-proclamation”. It was not of my own accord that I assumed the function of president that day, but in adherence to the Constitution.
I was 15 when Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998. At the time I lived in Vargas State, which borders the Caribbean. In 1999 torrential rains caused flash floods that left thousands of people dead. I lost several friends, and my school was buried in the mudslide.
The importance of resilience has been etched into my soul ever since. Both of my grandfathers served in the armed forces and they instilled a strong work ethic in their children that helped my family recover from those devastating floods. I saw that if I wanted a better future for my country I had to roll up my sleeves and give my life to public service.
When it became clear that under Chávez the country was drifting toward totalitarianism, I joined the student movement, which played a crucial role in delivering him a decisive loss on a referendum in 2007 that would have granted him sweeping powers. I became involved in local politics and was elected to serve as a deputy representing Vargas State in the National Assembly in 2015.
That same generation of brothers and sisters from my student movement days stands alongside me today, as Venezuelans from across the political spectrum are joining in an effort to re-establish democracy. It is incumbent on us to reinstate normality, in order to build the advanced and prosperous country of which we all dream.
But first we must recover our freedom.
The struggle for freedom has been part of our DNA ever since independence was achieved in Latin America 200 years ago. In this century we have taken to the streets repeatedly, knowing that not only is the survival of our democracy at stake, but the very fate of our nation.
A pattern has developed under the Maduro regime. When pressure builds, the first recourse is to repress and persecute. I know this because buckshot pellets fired by members of the armed forces — at peaceful protesters in 2017 — remain lodged in my own body. A minor price to pay compared to the sacrifices made by some of my compatriots.
Under Mr. Maduro at least 240 Venezuelans have been murdered at marches, and there are 600 political prisoners, including the founder of my party, Leopoldo López, who has been a prisoner for five years. When repressive tactics prove futile, Mr. Maduro and his henchmen disingenuously propose “dialogue”. But we have become immune to such manipulation. There are no more stunts left for them to pull. The usurpation of power was their only remaining option.
Given that the Maduro regime cannot legitimately retain power, our response is threefold: First, to shore up the National Assembly as the last bastion of democracy; second, to consolidate the support of the international community, especially the Lima Group, the Organization of American States, the United States and the European Union; and third, to address the people, on the basis that they have a right to self-determination.
Over 50 countries have recognized either me as interim president or the National Assembly as the legitimate authority in Venezuela. I have appealed to António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General, as well as to several humanitarian agencies, for support in easing the humanitarian crisis. I have begun the process of appointing ambassadors and locating and recovering national assets tied up abroad.
There is a broad consensus among Venezuelans in favor of change: 84 percent of our people reject Mr. Maduro’s rule. We have, therefore, been holding town halls across the country so people can talk openly about the moment in which we find ourselves, and about our future.
Among opposition politicians, we have come up with three strategic points of agreement as part of our road map to democracy: an end to the usurpation; a transitional government; and free elections.
The transition will require support from key military contingents. We have had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces. We have offered amnesty to all those who are found not guilty of crimes against humanity. The military’s withdrawal of support from Mr. Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government, and the majority of those in service agree that the country’s recent travails are untenable.
Mr. Maduro no longer has the support of the people. Last week in Caracas, citizens from the poorest neighborhoods that had been Chavista strongholds in the past took to the streets in unprecedented protests. They went out again on Jan. 23 with the full knowledge that they might be brutally repressed, and they continue to attend town hall meetings.
Mr. Maduro’s time is running out, but in order to manage his exit with the minimum of bloodshed, all of Venezuela must unite in pushing for a definitive end to his regime. For that, we need the support of pro-democratic governments, institutions and individuals the world over. It is imperative that we find effective solutions for the grave humanitarian crisis we are suffering, just as it is to go on building a path toward understanding and reconciliation.
Our strength, and the salvation of all Venezuela, is in unity.
Juan Guaidó is the president of the Venezuelan National Assembly and an opposition leader. This essay was translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.