Last Sunday, masked men intercepted a white van carrying Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido to a political meeting outside Caracas. They shoved Guaido into an SUV and sped away, taking into custody the man spearheading a bold and risky new strategy to try and reverse the country’s calamitous decline under President Nicolas Maduro.Authorities freed Guaido after a short detention, perhaps because the incident was only meant to intimidate him, or maybe because the government is still unsure about how to deal with Guaido, who is raising the stakes in a way Maduro has not seen until now.

A
week ago, the Venezuelan leader was sworn in for a new six-year term.
The ceremony might have seemed like a pro-forma event in a presidency
that began in 2013, continuing the country’s sharp left turn taken two
decades ago by Maduro’s mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. But
Maduro’s second inauguration marks the beginning of a new phase of
conflict in Venezuela, with the opposition launching a bold campaign
whose international support is without precedent since the rise of
Chavismo.

Venezuela’s
political and economic crises have reached such enormous proportions
that they have become a source of profound concern for the rest of the
region. The economy has unraveled, with crime, scarcity and poverty
escalating beyond anything the country has seen. Inflation, headed to an
unbelievable 10 million percent, according to the International
Monetary Fund, is by far the world’s highest. Once one of Latin
America’s most prosperous countries, with the world’s largest proven oil
reserves, conditions are worsening by the day. Almost 80 percent of
adult Venezuelans say they are eating less today than they were three
months ago because they don’t have enough money to buy food. A raise in
the minimum wage that Maduro recently announced only takes it to $6.70
per month. The crisis has spawned an exodus of more than 3 million
Venezuelans scattering across Latin America, a region with limited
resources and conflicts of its own. It’s not only Venezuelans who are
eager for change.
A few
days before Maduro’s inauguration, Venezuela’s elected National
Assembly, dominated by the opposition but stripped of all power by
Maduro, launched its new session by naming the 35-year-old Guaido as its
president, effectively bestowing on him the mantle of bringing an end
to the Maduro regime. 
Guaido
has minimal political experience, but he has enough to know how risky
his position is. An engineer by training, he cut his political teeth at
the side of Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s most popular politician, who is
now under house arrest. In accepting the position, Guaido spoke of the
misery that afflicts the country, listing the names of imprisoned
government opponents and noting that Venezuela is living a “dark but
transitional moment.” He promised to restore constitutional order, but
without much explanation.More than a dozen countries called on Maduro to
step down and hand power to Congress until a fair election is carried
out and a new president is elected. Ominously for the government, a
group of foreign bondholders announced that it would not negotiate with
the Maduro government because it is “illegitimate.
Maduro’s
legitimacy was sharply called into question when he won an election
last year that much of the international community deemed fraudulent. On
Jan. 4, the Lima Group of 13 Latin American countries rejected his
impending second term and announced it would not recognize him as
president. Instead, it declared, it would recognize the National
Assembly as the country’s democratically elected body. 
The
statement, notably, was not signed by Mexico, whose new leftist
president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, claims he wants a
noninterventionist foreign policy. Still, the near-unanimity among
Venezuela’s neighbors is in sharp contrast with Maduro’s 2013
inauguration, when regional support for him was evident with the
presidents of Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina, among others, on
hand for the ceremony in Caracas. 
This
time, Paraguay announced it was severing diplomatic relations with
Venezuela. Brazil went even further, announcing it recognized Guaido as
president. And Canada joined with the Lima Group, downgrading diplomatic
relations, calling the Maduro regime a “fully entrenched dictatorship”
and urging him to cede power to the legislature until new elections are
held.