Tuesday, 10 Dec 2019

Juan Guaidó Returns to Venezuela, Facing Threat of Arrest

CARACAS, Venezuela — Juan Guaidó, the Venezuelan opposition leader who defied a travel ban and left the country more than a week ago, returned Monday in what could turn into a new showdown with President Nicolás Maduro.

“Back in our beloved homeland!,” Mr. Guaidó said in a Twitter posting from the Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetía, near Caracas, where he landed on a commercial flight from Panama. “We just got through passport control and will head where our people are!”

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Guaidó would be detained by government security forces. But Mr. Maduro’s government has said Mr. Guaidó violated restrictions on his travel and could face arrest.

Mr. Guaidó returned and was welcomed by cheering crowds in Venezuela as the Trump administration escalated its warnings to Mr. Maduro’s government not to carry out its threat to seize the opposition leader. Mr. Guaidó is recognized by President Trump and more than 50 other heads of government as Venezuela’s rightful president until new elections can be held.

“Any threats, violence or intimidation against him will not be tolerated & will be met with swift response,” Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “The world is watching — Interim President Guaidó must be allowed to re-enter Venezuela safely.”

Mr. Guaidó, 35, has become the biggest challenge yet to Mr. Maduro’s embattled presidency since he declared himself interim president in January on grounds that Mr. Maduro won a second term through fraud.

The struggle between the two has intensified as Venezuela, once Latin America’s most prosperous nation, has slid into its worst economic crisis, with Mr. Maduro accused by critics of corruption and mismanagement. Food shortages are acute, the health care system has collapsed and more than three million Venezuelans have fled.

Mr. Maduro has called Mr. Guaidó a lackey of the Trump administration and attributed the country’s economic malaise to American sanctions, which have been intensified by President Trump. Mr. Trump has called on other countries to support Mr. Guaidó and predicted that Mr. Maduro’s socialist government was near its end.

As Mr. Guaidó flew into the country, large military contingents surrounded the Simon Bolívar Airport. A number of European diplomats had come to the airport to offer their support.

“We have the hope that he has a safe return so he can continue with his role as president of the National Assembly,” said Daniel Kriener, the German ambassador to Venezuela, to journalists in the airport.

In Caracas, the capital, supporters gathered in a plaza after Mr. Guaidó called for demonstrators to hold large rallies throughout the country. But some acknowledged it was possible that he may be jailed.

“I hope they make the mistake of arresting them,” said Carmen Herrera, who was selling Venezuelan flags to demonstrators, saying it was unlikely the government would succeed if they detained him. “I am against Maduro.”

Mr. Guaidó left Venezuela surreptitiously on Feb. 23 to help direct an effort to bring truckloads of emergency aid into Venezuela via border crossings in Colombia and Brazil. The effort was blocked by Mr. Maduro’s armed forces and other loyalists, and left Mr. Guaidó afoul of the law in Venezuela, where he faced a travel ban.

The restriction had been imposed by the country’s Supreme Court last month after the Venezuelan attorney general asked for an investigation of “violent occurrences” that happened before Mr. Guaidó challenged Mr. Maduro’s legitimacy.

Mr. Maduro has warned that he could have Mr. Guaidó imprisoned if he returned. Last week, Juan Carlos Valdéz, an auxiliary judge on the Supreme Court, told Russia’s Sputnik news service that Mr. Guaidó could face a 30-year prison sentence for having left the country.

As a lawmaker, Mr. Guaidó has immunity from criminal investigations. But Mr. Maduro’s government has detained Mr. Guaidó in the past, and has held another opposition lawmaker, Juan Requesens, for the last seven months.

After the Feb. 23 aid effort on the border failed, Mr. Guaidó visited several sympathetic Latin American countries over the past week to strengthen support for his opposition movement. About 50 other governments, mostly in Latin America and Europe, have renounced ties with Mr. Maduro and recognized Mr. Guaidó instead.

John R. Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, warned Mr. Maduro’s government via Twitter on Sunday night not to block Mr. Guaidó from returning or arrest him.

“Any threats or acts against his safe return will be met with a strong and significant response from the United States and the international community,” Mr. Bolton said.

An earlier version of this article misidentified the Venezuelan political leader who risked detention by security forces. As stated elsewhere in the article, it was Juan Guaidó, not Nicolas Maduro.

Ana Vanessa Herrero reported from Caracas, Nicholas Casey from Santiago, Chile, and Ernesto Londoño from Rio de Janeiro. Katie Rogers contributed reporting from Washington, and Rick Gladstone from New York.

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