Inside Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó's push to oust Maduro

In an impromptu press conference Sunday, he appealed directly to Maduro's military backers: “Don’t shoot the people of Venezuela.”

CARACAS, Venezuela — He’s only 35, and few people had heard of him outside of Venezuela until last week, but Juan Guaidó has suddenly positioned himself as Venezuela’s savior, vowing to end the economic and humanitarian catastrophe brought on by sitting President Nicolas Maduro.

On Wednesday, a week after Maduro officially began his second term, Guaidó swore himself in as interim president of Venezuela, declaring he would carry the mantle until free and fair elections could be held. Maduro was re-elected last May in elections marred by opposition boycotts and charges of widespread fraud.

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Guaidó appears to have powerful friends — the U.S., Canada and prominent powers in the EU like France, Germany and the U.K. have all lined up behind him. But he’ll need the country’s armed forces if he’s going to oust Maduro, who thus far has enjoyed their loyalty. When asked what his message was for the U.S., Guaidó told VICE News: “We are fighting very hard right now to recover democracy and freedom in our country. And please support us.”

Venezuela's military has sided with the government in quelling waves and waves of street protests, violently repressing the opposition. So now the protesters have shifted tactics by appealing to them directly.

On Sunday, small groups of protesters, including 68-year-old Maritza Marquez, visited military barracks around the country and handed out letters to soldiers, inviting them to join their side and promising them amnesty for doing so. “The government of Juan Guaidó is offering them a change to reconcile with history, to reconcile with their country,” Marquez told VICE News.

Guaidó himself is also speaking to the president’s military backers to switch sides. During an impromptu press conference Sunday after he went to mass at a local church and was swarmed by an adoring crowd, he called on soldiers across the country to “be on the side of the constitution,” imploring them: “Don’t shoot the people of Venezuela.”

Meanwhile he needs to avoid Maduro’s grasp. The opposition’s last best hope, former presidential candidate Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested in 2014 and remains under house arrest today. Protests in 2017 also buckled under the regime’s crackdown, resulting in 102 deaths, according to the Associated Press, and forcing dozens of opposition leaders to flee the country.

Guaidó is taking precautions to avoid a similar outcome. He’s moving around constantly, and only making public appearances in places where he's confident he won't be arrested.

“They are sending scouting people first to see if security is good enough, and if there is too much police activity, they don’t show at all,” a local fixer, Leonardo Lameda, told VICE News. “It’s kind of like a guerrilla thing, you know.”

VICE News was on the streets of Caracas trying to catch Guaidó in action.

This segment originally aired January 28, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.