- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - A previously little-known Venezuelan congressman, Juan Guaidó, leaped to the front stage of Venezuela’s political conflict early this year by declaring himself interim president in a bid to force the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro loyalists so far have stopped short of arresting Guaidó, but that may not last long. A pro-government assembly voted this week to strip Guaidó of the immunity enjoyed by congressmen, paving the way for him to be prosecuted and potentially jailed for allegedly violating the constitution. Guaidó says he’s undeterred, despite the risks he runs for threatening to end 20 years of socialist rule.

The power struggle is playing out amid growing social unrest as millions of Venezuelans have endured nearly a month of rolling blackouts that have crippled water services, public transportation and electronic communication.

The question looms more than two months after Guaidó claimed presidential powers: Whether he’ll ultimately succeed and topple Maduro - or land in jail.

Here’s a look at what led to Venezuela’s political stalemate and what’s next.



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WHO ARE THE TWO MAIN PLAYERS?

Guaidó, a 35-year-old engineer, was first elected to the Venezuela’s National Assembly in 2015 and became the opposition-dominated body’s president in January, rising from relative obscurity. He launched his campaign to oust Maduro on Jan. 23 before a cheering crowd in Caracas. He claimed Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent, making the head of congress acting president. He is vowing to hold free elections to end what he calls Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Maduro, the 56-year-old hand-picked successor to the late President Hugo Chávez, took the helm of government following Chávez’s 2013 death. Maduro won a second, six-year term a year ago in elections rejected by critics as a sham because the most popular challengers and political parties were banned. Maduro denies being a dictator or the need for early elections, calling Guaidó a “puppet” of the U.S.

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WHAT DOES GUAIDÓ WANT?

At each public event, he calls for an end to Maduro’s “illegitimate rule” with the president’s departure from power, and then the creation of a transitional government to oversee free presidential elections. Guaidó has tried, unsuccessfully, to lure soldiers away from support for Maduro and has urged Venezuelans into the streets for protests, some of which have turned violent. It’s unclear whether Guaidó would eventually launch his candidacy.

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WHO’S BACKING EACH OF THEM?

Guaidó has won support from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump among 50 nations that reject Maduro’s rule. The U.S. tried to send emergency aid to Venezuela, which Maduro refused to allow in, saying it was an attempt by Washington to launch an invasion. Trump adviser John Bolton recently tweeted that any threats or acts against Guaidó would trigger a “strong and significant response.” Meanwhile, Maduro continues to hold power over all state agencies. His primary backers are Cuba, Russia, China and Turkey. Most countries still recognize him as president.

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HOW HAS MADURO‘S GOVERNMENT RESPONDED TO GUAIDÓ?

Venezuela’s National Constituent Assembly - filled with Maduro loyalists - unanimously stripped Guaidó of immunity this week, paving the way for the opposition leader’s prosecution and potential arrest for supposedly violating the constitution when he declared himself interim president. He’s also under investigation on suspicion of inciting violence at the rallies. Officials have jailed Guaidó’s chief of staff as an accused “terrorist” and barred Guaidó from holding public office for 15 years for allegedly hiding or falsifying data in his sworn statement of assets.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

Experts say Maduro’s government is unlikely to follow through and arrest Guaidó, which would trigger a stronger response from Washington. However, actions taken to silence Maduro’s past challengers suggest otherwise. Prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez - Guaidó’s mentor - was jailed, and he’s now under house arrest banned from speaking publicly. Other leaders in the opposition have sought refuge in foreign embassies or fled abroad, fearing for their safety. Others say Maduro’s government is testing the waters by stripping Guaidó’s immunity, weighing how the international community would react to detaining him.

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