NOEL KING, HOST:
Four months ago, Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president of Venezuela.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
KING: Millions of Venezuelans and the United States and dozens of other countries recognize Guaido as the rightful head of state. But sitting President Nicolas Maduro says no. And he has stayed largely in control despite Venezuela's deep, deep economic crisis. NPR's John Otis had a rare chance to sit down with Guaido for an interview yesterday. He's on the line from Caracas now. Good morning, John.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So hard to get an interview with a guy like Guaido - tell me where it took place. What happened?
OTIS: Yeah, you know, that's right. I've been after him for a while and finally got a phone call, you know, shortly before the actual interview happened. They didn't want to tell us where it was going to be until the very last minute. And it ended up being in - kind of inside this desolate office building.
Guaido moves around from safe house to safe house and from temporary office space to temporary office space because he just doesn't want to be in one place for too long because, you know, the Maduro government has been cracking down on the opposition. And they've actually arrested a number of his close aides. And so they were quite hush-hush about it. And, you know, they didn't want us to tell the location. And they're just being very careful right now.
KING: A worried man. Venezuela is trying to figure this out. There have been negotiations between Guaido's people and Maduro's people in Norway recently. What did Guaido tell you about those talks?
OTIS: Guaido told me that there'd been no concrete results. In fact, for much of their time in Oslo, the two sides weren't even speaking to each other but rather to a Norwegian mediator. Guaido is demanding that Maduro step down to open the door for free presidential elections. But Maduro doesn't seem to be budging at all on that. That said, we talked about how these types of negotiations typically can drag on for months, if not years.
KING: Yeah. Guaido does have a close relationship with the United States. And U.S. officials often say that, you know, all options are on the table with respect to Venezuela. That sounds, to many ears, like a hint at some kind of military action to remove Maduro. What did Guaido tell you about that?
OTIS: Well, you know, you're right. Guaido speaks with U.S. officials all the time. In fact, our interview with him got pushed back for about a half an hour because he was on the phone for a lengthy conversation with Vice President Mike Pence. He says that having the U.S. in his corner gives him a boost. He's quite proud of it. He kind of flaunts it sometimes.
And - but at the same time, this allows Maduro and his socialist government and their supporters to paint Guaido as a puppet of American imperialism. And as for some kind of military action, the enthusiasm for that seems to be waning within the Trump administration. But Guaido points out that this idea is catching on among average Venezuelans.
GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: And what he's saying here is that things are now so bad that if you talk to people here about regime change, they'll tell you that it needs to happen by any means necessary - including a U.S. invasion.
KING: John, that is really striking, given the United States' history in Central and South America, to hear that Venezuelans might welcome an intervention. What does this mean about where Juan Guaido goes from here?
OTIS: Well, the opposition's been on a real roller coaster lately. In fact, just last month, people thought the end of Maduro was at hand when Guaido called for a military uprising. But that effort ended up failing because the armed forces remained loyal to Maduro. And Guaido responds - he says, look, you know, I've only been at this for a few months, while the socialist government that I'm going up against has been in power for 20 years.
And Guaido, he also described Maduro as being trapped inside the presidential palace because so many Venezuelans despise him. Meanwhile, Guaido's barnstorming around the country, being met by enthusiastic crowds. So even if he doesn't have much real power at this point, Guaido says, at least I'm winning the popularity contest.
KING: That was NPR's John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela.
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