On a recent weekday, Franzua Rivera, an 18-year-old cashier, was wondering how long Venezuela could continue trapped between two men who claim to be president.
“Esto es una locura” — this is crazy, said Rivera on the streets of Caracas. “We need one president, only one. … With two presidents we’re adrift.”
Venezuela has been adrift since Jan. 23, when Juan Guaidó, the head of congress, announced he was assuming the presidency and would call for new elections — even as Nicolás Maduro insists he has the right to rule the country through 2025.
Amid almost daily protests, the number of dead, detained and persecuted has spiked. Since anti-government demonstrations began in earnest on Jan. 21, at least 28 people have died and almost 1,000 people have been detained, with about 755 remaining in jail, according to human rights groups. On Thursday, Transparency International accused the government of jailing 77 children, some of them as young as 12.
And Maduro is warning that things could deteriorate if Washington and other foreign powers continue “meddling.” On Wednesday, in a video, the 56-year-old leader predicted that a “war worse than Vietnam” would seize the country if the United States tried to oust him.
In a nation wracked by hyperinflation and sporadic food and medicine shortages, few have the appetite for armed intervention — even those who want Maduro gone.
Jean Carlos, a 45-year-old man who relies on a cane, guards cars at a bakery in eastern Caracas hoping to make spare change. While he wants Maduro ousted, he doesn’t think the United States, Colombia or anyone else should tip the balance.
“I think that if the people put him there, well, it should be the people who take him out of there,” he said.
But Maduro is refusing to go. In power since 2013, he argues he won the May 20 election that gives him the right to rule for the next six years. Even so, many in the international community say that election was plagued by fraud and that Maduro’s rule is illegitimate. On Thursday, the European Union joined the United States, Canada, Colombia, Brazil and others in recognizing Guaidó as the sole head of state.
And while Maduro doesn’t have popular support he does seem to have the critical support of the military.
In an Opinion piece published in The New York Times, Guaidó acknowledged he needs the military’s help to force Maduro out.
“The transition will require support from key military contingents,” he wrote. “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.”
But even without real power, many already consider Guaidó their legitimate leader.
“I love the fact that Guaidó is now president,” said Yolanda Hernández, a 71-year-old retiree and widow. “Interim or whatever ... he’s our president!”
But she fears that Maduro will do whatever it takes — using force if necessary — to cling to power.
“But we have no fear. Fear no longer exists for us because [Maduro] has hurt us too much already,” she said. “And if I could talk to Guaidó I would say to him, ‘Have no fear because all of Venezuela, and part of the world, are with you.”