By Mary Beth Sheridan and Mariana Zuniga / The Washington Post
CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Juan Guaido called for nationwide demonstrations on Monday as he returns to Venezuela, in what could be a pivotal moment for the U.S.-backed campaign to oust authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.
“Tomorrow we face a historic challenge. We will return to our country,” Guaido said Sunday night in a video appearance carried on Facebook Live and other platforms. He urged “everyone into the streets of Venezuela,” starting at 11 a.m.
Guaido slipped into neighboring Colombia on Feb. 22 for what opposition leaders had billed as a potential turning point in Venezuela’s political crisis — a showdown with security forces on the border, over the passage of tons of international humanitarian assistance. But the security forces largely stayed loyal to Maduro and dispersed protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, leaving truckloads of aid stranded outside a country in desperate economic straits.
Maduro has said that Guaido will “face justice” if he returns, noting that he defied a court order barring him from leaving the South American country. Guaido has not said exactly when or where he will re-enter Venezuela. He has been on a tour of Latin American nations and was in Ecuador on Sunday.
The United States and other countries have warned Maduro against detaining the opposition leader, who has been recognized by much of the world as Venezuela’s interim president.
But it’s unclear whether such pressure will sway Maduro, who is fighting for his political life. Since Guaido declared himself interim president in late January, he has become the biggest threat to Maduro since the former union leader succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2013 as head of a radical leftist government. Tens of thousands of people have responded to Guaido’s calls for anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.
If he is jailed, however, the opposition campaign could stall.
In his speech Sunday night, Guaido acknowledged the risk he faced.
“If the regime tries to kidnap me, to carry out a coup, we know the steps to take,” he said, urging supporters to respond with mass protests. Any move by Maduro and his government to detain him would be “one of the last mistakes they make,” he added.
Margarita Lopez Maya, a Venezuelan political scientist, predicted that Maduro would not be dissuaded by threats of censure by other nations.
“I think Maduro has shown he’s ready to assume the political costs of appearing a monster in the international community,” she said.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, said Maduro might not realize the potential consequences of detaining Guaido.
“He doesn’t seem to realize the urgency of the situation. He feels stronger than he probably should,” he said. He added that Maduro faces a classic “dictator’s dilemma” of being surrounded by “yes-men” who aren’t informing him of the country’s growing isolation and economic turmoil.
Maduro did not comment Sunday but has accused Guaido, 35, of being part of a U.S. plot to overthrow his government.
On Sunday, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, said that if Maduro detained the opposition leader, “it would just hasten the day that he leaves.” President Donald Trump has said that the United States was maintaining “all options” to deal with the Venezuela crisis — even military action — but his aides have downplayed that possibility. Bolton, speaking in an interview with Fox News Sunday, said that Washington wants “a peaceful transition of power.”
Maduro has grown increasingly unpopular as Venezuela’s oil-based economy has collapsed, due to government mismanagement and lower petroleum prices in recent years. The International Monetary Fund has warned that inflation could hit 10 million percent this year. Food and medicine have become scarce.
Jazmín Fernandez, 47, a chemical engineer who was walking her three dogs in Caracas on Sunday, said she was ready to join the protests Guaido had called for Monday and Tuesday. “I’m not scared. I have already been hit in many marches,” she said. “In fact, I had a confrontation with a National Guard officer and I bit her so hard that she let me go. I am desperate. I want Maduro out.”
But Maribel Urbina, 50, a cashier at a stand producing arepas – Venezuelan cornmeal cakes – said she had become fearful after being tear-gassed during protests in 2017. “I’m not going” to the Monday demonstration, she said. “I’m a coward.”
Some Caracas residents said that Monday was a poor choice of date for a protest, since it’s a holiday marking Carnival – and some people had left town.
Maduro has been able to ride out years of protests by relying on the military and paramilitary groups known as “colectivos.” Bolton said, however, that his position was “very precarious.”
“There are countless conversations going on below the surface as to where the military will go,” Bolton said Sunday.