Venezuela’s Guaido risks arrest as he returns home to defy Maduro

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, waves next to his wife Fabiana Rosales while leaving a hotel in Salinas, Ecuador March 3, 2019. REUTERS/Daniel Tapia

By Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido plans to risk arrest by returning home on Monday, after he ignored a court-imposed travel ban and toured Latin American countries to boost support for his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido’s return, details of which his team have kept under wraps, could become the next flashpoint in his duel with Maduro as he seeks to keep up momentum and spur his international backers to further isolate the socialist government.

His arrest could allow the opposition to highlight how the Maduro administration represses political foes and prompt the United States to impose even harsher sanctions. But it could also strip the opposition of a public figurehead who has brought unity after years of infighting.

Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by most Western countries, said on Sunday he would undertake the “historic challenge” of returning in time to lead protests on Monday and Tuesday during the Carnival holiday period, an unusual time for demonstrations.

By 10.30 a.m. local time, Guaido still had not appeared in Caracas, though in a recorded message posted on his Twitter account he said he was en route to his home and he would be with “the men and women I most admire” in a few hours.

“Upon my arrival, whatever path the dictator takes, we are going to continue,” he said.

Guaido secretly left Venezuela for Colombia, in violation of a Supreme Court order, to coordinate efforts there on Feb. 23 to send humanitarian aid into Venezuela to alleviate widespread shortages of food and medicine.

But troops loyal to Maduro blocked convoys of aid trucks sent from Colombia and Brazil, leading to clashes that killed at least six people along the Brazilian border, rights groups say.

From Colombia, he then traveled to Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Paraguay to shore up Latin American support for a transition government that would precede free and fair elections.

On Sunday, he departed by plane from the Ecuadorean coastal town of Salinas but has not appeared publicly since, beyond a Twitter broadcast that evening from an undisclosed location.

To arrive in Caracas by Monday morning, he could take commercial flights from Bogota, Panama City or Miami. A Reuters reporter on the one morning flight from Bogota said he was not on it.

Maduro, who has called Guaido a coup-mongering U.S. puppet and denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, has said his arrest depends on the justice system.

“He can’t just come and go. He will have to face justice, and justice prohibited him from leaving the country,” he told ABC News last week.

The United States has warned Maduro of the consequences of arresting Guaido and the Treasury imposed new sanctions on Friday targeting Venezuelan military officials.

“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,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Twitter on Sunday.

After the military blocked the aid convoys, Guaido proposed that “all options be kept open” to topple Maduro, but foreign military intervention is seen as unlikely and his international backers are instead using a mix of sanctions and diplomacy.

The government has jailed dozens of opposition leaders and activists for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017, including Guaido’s mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, who remains under house arrest.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick; Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera in Caracas, from Marco Bello in Bogota and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Susan Thomas)