Opposition leader Juan Guaidó returned to a cheering crowd in the capital’s main airport on Monday despite government threats to arrest him, energizing his supporters in a political showdown with President Nicolás Maduro.
Having flouted a government travel ban by leaving the country more than a week earlier, Mr. Guaidó arrived on a commercial flight from Panama and calmly walked through immigration, emerging to hundreds of supporters who chanted, “Yes, we can!” and waved Venezuelan flags.
His arrival electrified many Venezuelans, who saw his return as a sign the opposition now had the upper hand against a deeply unpopular autocrat who has relied on the armed forces to maintain power. His return was also symbolic in a country where 3.4 million people have fled a profound humanitarian crisis.
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“We are stronger than ever before,” a smiling Mr. Guaidó said at the airport. “We are going to end the [Maduro government] in Venezuela very soon.”
The government played down Mr. Guaidó’s return. State-run TV channels instead covered the carnival holidays with images of Venezuelans dancing on the beach. Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez said the government didn’t want to turn Mr. Guaidó into a hero by arresting him.
“In prison, he’d be a world hero,” she said. “His time will come. We’ll let him continue being a nobody until he turns into nothing.”
Mr. Guaidó’s unimpeded arrival—in broad daylight and through the country’s main airport—threatens to make Mr. Maduro look weak to the armed forces as well as to his few remaining foreign allies.
The development “restores momentum to the opposition” a week after it failed to get promised humanitarian aid into Venezuela, said Harold Trinkunas, an expert on the Venezuelan military at Stanford University.
The Trump administration had vowed to take swift action against Mr. Maduro if anything happened to Mr. Guaidó. Western diplomats, including from France, Germany and the U.S., came to the airport in a show of support.
“We came to be sure that they aren’t going to threaten the physical integrity and freedom of movement of President Guaidó,” the French ambassador to Venezuela, Romain Nadal, said. “If they violate the rights of President Guaidó, tension will increase in the country.”
Still, the threat of arrest for Mr. Guaidó remains, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) wrote in a tweet. “#MaduroRegime has perfected the bureaucratization of repression. Issue a standing arrest warrant from a rubber stamp court. Then at a time of their choosing, arrest him late at night with no media, diplomats or supporters around.”
Mr. Guaidó, who is the head of the National Assembly and is recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, secretly left Venezuela on Feb. 23 and turned up on the Colombian side of the border to try to help lead a convoy of international aid into Venezuela.
The Maduro government blocked entry of the aid amid violence that claimed seven lives and injured hundreds. Mr. Guaidó then toured South American capitals, where he was received like a visiting head of state, to drum up international support and plot next moves.
Political analyst Luís Vicente Leon said Mr. Guaidó’s return to Venezuela may be the result of a behind-the-scenes deal between the opposition and the government, possibly with the support of European nations who have set up a group to promote a negotiated solution to the crisis.
“This isn’t an act of happenstance. It’s not as if Guaidó entered Venezuela and only realized when he got to Maiquetia that he wasn’t going to be jailed,” said Mr. Leon, referring to the airport. “I think what we are seeing is a precursor to a process for a political negotiation.”
People close to the opposition, however, said there had not been any negotiation. “There were no talks with anyone in the government. Zero,” said a person familiar with the opposition’s strategies.
Mr. Guaidó spoke to a rally in Caracas after his return to Venezuela on Monday. This picture was distributed by aides to the opposition leader.
Mr. Guaidó spoke to a rally in Caracas after his return to Venezuela on Monday. This picture was distributed by aides to the opposition leader. PHOTO: DONALDO BARROS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Mr. Guaidó has about 61% support among Venezuelans, while Mr. Maduro scores 13% approval, according to the country’s leading pollster, Datanalisis. It also showed that in a hypothetical head-to-head election, Mr. Guaidó would trounce Mr. Maduro by a 77-23% margin.
“(Maduro’s) lost all legitimacy,” said Julio Borges, an opposition leader who is exiled in Colombia and helped plan Mr. Guaidó’s return. “The only strength he can draw from is brute force, and that makes him weak in the end.”
Mr. Maduro has so far kept the support of the armed forces. But there are signs of cracks. More than 700 national guard troops defected in recent weeks, according to Colombian authorities, and formal security forces appear to be increasingly wary of using lethal force against protesters, analysts said. Mr. Maduro either felt that arresting Mr. Guaidó was too big a risk or didn’t have enough faith that such an order would be obeyed, analysts said.
On Monday, thousands of Venezuelans from Caracas to the oil hub of Maracaibo heeded Mr. Guaidó’s call for nationwide demonstrations despite being in the middle of carnival holiday. Near the airport, opposition supporters held Venezuelan flags and signs that read “Welcome President Guaidó.”
“I’m here because I want to challenge the usurper Maduro,” said Clara Mayora, a 33-year-old accountant who was concerned they would jail Mr. Guaidó. “They are capable of anything.”
Upon his arrival, Mr. Guaidó said the immigration officials who stamped his passport to enter told him ‘Welcome, President.’ Shortly after, Mr. Guaidó turned up at a rally in Caracas, where he acknowledged the opposition had failed to deliver on its promise to deliver humanitarian aid. “Can we call February 23 a success? Obviously not,” said Mr. Guaidó, warning supporters that they still faced a long road back to democracy.
He said he would unveil measures aimed at civil servants on Tuesday and called for a day of protests on Saturday. “We can’t allow the bureaucracy to continue being kidnapped,” he said at the rally to cheers from tens of thousands of people. “This fight will be worth it if we achieve liberty for our country.”
The latest standoff between Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Maduro comes after the opposition leader evoked the constitution to swear himself in as president on grounds that Mr. Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham. The move has sparked the biggest challenge yet to Mr. Maduro’s hold on power in the oil-rich nation undergoing a profound economic crisis.
Economic mismanagement and corruption under Mr. Maduro have sparked hyperinflation and rampant food and medicinal shortages.
The U.S., the first country to recognize Mr. Guaidó, has ramped up pressure on Mr. Maduro to force him from office.
In late January, Washington announced sanctions on state oil company PdVSA to cut off Mr. Maduro’s access to hard cash currency. It has also recently applied sanctions against several state security officials and governors loyal to Mr. Maduro who blocked humanitarian aid from entering Venezuela during the deadly border clashes last month.
Mr. Guaidó and his allies have had limited success in their strategy. His goal to convince the military to rebel against Mr. Maduro and let aid into Venezuela didn’t materialize. His subsequent calls for foreign military intervention were quickly rebuffed by allies in Latin America and Europe. U.S. officials have played down the likelihood of using force to oust Mr. Maduro while saying that all options are on the table to restore democracy.
Mr. Guaidó also stayed longer abroad than he’d initially said and kept changing his plans, say people familiar with the situation, suggesting poor planning.
Still, his return on Monday energized supporters like Isilio Rodríguez, a 34-year-old who cheered on the opposition leader at the airport.
“The fact that they’ve let Juan Guaidó in is a clear sign that the regime feels extremely weak, between a sword and the wall,” he said.