- - Thursday, January 24, 2019

BUENOS AIRES — When Lt. Col. Hugo Chavez first tried to overthrow Venezuela’s democratically elected president in 1992, Juan Guaido was 8 years old.

And when the firebrand socialist came to power at the polls seven years later, Mr. Guaido had not yet graduated from Los Corales High School in his native Vargas region of northern Venezuela.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and the youthfulness of Mr. Guaido, 35, whom the United States and more than a dozen other countries recognize as Venezuela’s interim president, is one of the key attributes setting him apart from allies in Venezuela’s long-beleaguered opposition who tried — and failed — to end the dictatorship led by Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez’s successor.

In letting 10 days pass before openly challenging Mr. Maduro’s Jan. 10 reinauguration, Mr. Guaido, just elected head of the National Assembly, reinvigorated an opposition long seen as fractured, ineffective and marred by clashing personal agendas, said Xabier Coscojuela, editor of the Tal Cual digital newspaper.

“His youth is one thing already,” Mr. Coscojuela said. “But the way in which he has handled himself in public — including his initial ambiguity when he announced he’d take charge but not take charge — gave him an advantage, even if it seems contradictory.”

Mr. Guaido’s rise was helped by a pact among opposition parties to take one-year turns leading the National Assembly, the only branch of government they control. With Popular Will party leader Leopoldo Lopez under house arrest and second in command Freddy Guevara holed up in the Chilean Embassy, the young congressman happened to be next in line.

Mr. Guaido closely coordinates with Mr. Lopez, one of the Maduro regime’s earliest and most prominent political prisoners, Mr. Coscojuela said, and his down-to-earth style has helped him find a voice that ordinary Venezuelans will listen to.

“He doesn’t talk much; his speeches aren’t long,” Mr. Coscojuela said. “He uses social media a lot, which helps him connect with younger people, especially in a country where the mass media are censored or bought off by the government.”

Accepting the consequences

Mr. Guaido, a prolific Twitter user, took to the social media platform Thursday to thank foreign leaders and announce millions of dollars in U.S. aid. Despite international recognition, his calls on the military to turn against Mr. Maduro — and the refusal of the top brass — put him in immediate danger of arrest, a prospect he acknowledged at his swearing-in.

“We know this will have consequences,” the tall and slender speaker said in his trademark baritone. “But we will not allow it to fall apart because, even though we’re in a dictatorship, we know that a united people will never be defeated.”

The son of airline pilot Wilmer Guaido and his first wife, Norka Marquez, Juan Guaido was born in La Guaira, Venezuela, on July 28, 1983 — Mr. Chavez’s 29th birthday.

His childhood was marked by the 1999 Vargas mudslides, which killed tens of thousands and destroyed the Guaido family home. Mr. Chavez famously refused offers of American assistance.

In the early 2000s, his father was among the first wave of Venezuelan emigres. Mr. Guaido enrolled in industrial engineering at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas.

In college, he quickly joined Mr. Guevara and others in a student movement opposing Chavez’s plans for constitutional reform to abolish term limits and hasten a “new era toward socialism,” which Venezuelans voted on in December 2007.

“I believe President Chavez lost that referendum thanks to the work of people like Juan,” Joao De Gouveia, who then taught Mr. Guaido and now heads the university’s industrial engineering school, told The Washington Times.

Although he increasingly focused on politics, helping Mr. Lopez found the centrist Popular Will party in 2009 and becoming a full National Assembly member in 2016, Mr. Guaido showed his scientific background with his meticulous and calm approach to this week’s fast-moving events, Mr. De Gouveia said.

“It’s part of the profile of an industrial engineer,” he said. “Before saying anything or doing anything, Juan had always studied all possible scenarios.”

Seeing his friend and former student as interim president fills Mr. De Gouveia with both pride and fear, he said.

“I hope the members of the military, who are Venezuelans, too, will do the right thing,” he said. “I believe we Venezuelans deserve what Juan is doing, and it’s the way to get out of this misery.”

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