Fears Grow that Venezuela Opposition Leader Could Be Arrested
CARACAS, Venezuela — Supporters of Venezuela’s opposition leader expressed worry Friday that he could soon be arrested as they converged for a rally in eastern Caracas, where he was expected to announce next steps to form an interim government.
The opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate president on Wednesday during a day of nationwide protests that challenged and infuriated President Nicolás Maduro.
Mr. Maduro called his adversary an American puppet, broke relations with the United States, gave its diplomats 72 hours to leave and ordered Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to return home by this weekend.
The Trump administration and several other countries in the region quickly recognized Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, depicting him as a democratic savior trying to rescue the once-prosperous country from political repression and economic ruin. They say Mr. Maduro was elected fraudulently and should resign.
But Mr. Maduro received an important reassurance on Thursday, when the country’s defense minister pledged the armed forces would remain loyal to him.
At the same time, Russia, an ally of Mr. Maduro that has provided his government billions of dollars in aid, warned the United States not to meddle in its affairs, effectively placing Venezuela in the middle of a new contest of wills between the Kremlin and Washington.
Mr. Guaidó, 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly, largely stayed out of public view after his self-declaration as president, amid speculation that Mr. Maduro’s security forces could take him into custody.
“From them, we can expect anything,” said Milagros Valera, an opposition lawmaker who supports Mr. Guaidó. “But the people will rally behind him and defend him.”
Ms. Valera, who attended the rally at the Simón Bolivar plaza in eastern Caracas, said opposition politicians were continuing to hold discreet talks with military leaders and remained hopeful that they would soon build enough support to get large factions to switch sides.
She said that even if Mr. Guaidó was arrested, that would not stop their plans.“We think we are on the right path,” she said.
Damelys González, 75, was among those who turned up at the plaza, holding a Venezuelan flag in one hand and a cane in the other, to rally behind Mr. Guaidó.
“We’re fearful, but we need to take to the streets and overcome that fear,” said Ms. González. “The moment is now or never.”
Despite Mr. Guaidó’s call for peaceful demonstrations, violent and sometimes deadly protests have flared repeatedly over the past week.
On Friday the United Nations human rights office in Geneva reported that Venezuelan security forces and pro-government armed groups had killed at least 20 people and wounded many more in recent days.
Local groups reported a higher death toll.
The United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the killings by forces loyal to Mr. Maduro, who has faced growing pressure over his stewardship of an oil-rich nation that has plunged into a prolonged crisis.
Ms. Bachelet, who served two terms as president of Chile, said she was “extremely concerned that the situation in Venezuela may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences.”
During an interview on a radio show Friday morning, Mr. Guaidó urged Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to refuse Mr. Maduro’s orders and keep working.
Mr. Guaidó said aides he described as his transition team had been busy over the past couple of days, developing plans to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela and to start mending the economy. But, speaking from an undisclosed location, he acknowledged the precariousness of his situation.
“They could imprison me today,” he said. “We can’t rule anything out.”
Although the Trump administration had said it would ignore Mr. Maduro’s deadline for American diplomats to leave, it acknowledged on Thursday that a number of diplomatic personnel and their families would be evacuated. Reuters reported that a convoy of vehicles carrying American embassy personnel were seen early Friday heading for the Caracas airport.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has implored all nations in the Western Hemisphere to recognize Mr. Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, was planning to press his case on Saturday at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in New York.