CARACAS – Juan Guaido, newly vulnerable to arrest, says he is prepared to be imprisoned by the autocratic regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and has a contingency plan for allies to continue the protest movement he leads.
“In the event that they want to, or try to, kidnap me, which they can do without a doubt, there is a complete strategy ready to continue with leadership, but also to intensify pressure,” Guaido said in an interview following a conference on the opposition’s policy plans to remedy Venezuela’s crisis. An arrest “would only catalyze local and international pressure, and I dare say, would be one of the government’s final erratic political actions.”
Venezuelan law has afforded Guaido, 35, immunity from prosecution because he is the head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly. But Maduro created a so-called Constituent Assembly to bypass that legislature, making it politically omnipotent and stacking it with socialist-party loyalists. On Tuesday, it stripped Guaido of protection, because he defied a travel ban to tour Latin American countries that support regime change in Venezuela.
Guaido has galvanized a fractious opposition and rallied his countrymen and most of the western world behind him. Soon after taking the reins of the toothless legislature in January, he invoked a constitutional provision to launch an interim government after Maduro began another six-year term following 2018 elections widely regarded as rigged. The U.S. and about 50 other nations quickly recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful head of state.
But Maduro continues to control the crucial security and military apparatus and receives support from Russia and China. His regime has cracked down on dissent and opened a probe into Guaido, who is accused of inciting violence, lying about his personal finances and was barred from leaving the country. Guaido calls it persecution.
“What we see is a government without a response to the crisis,” Guaido said. “They’re trying to dominate a society that’s at a boiling point.”
The oil-rich nation is reeling from hyperinflation, hunger and rolling blackouts that make daily life miserable for residents in backwater towns and major cities alike. Thousands of thirsty residents have recently taken to the streets of Caracas after going more than a week without running water. Despite mounting unrest, Maduro continues to insist that the country’s woes are not the result of poor governance, but sabotage orchestrated by opponents at home and abroad.
In February, Guaido slipped into neighboring Colombia and then met with half a dozen heads of state to whip up international support. Despite facing arrest, he returned home last month on a commercial flight and continued to call for street action.
As Venezuela hurtles toward a complete collapse of basic services, authorities have intensified pressure on Guaido and his inner circle. In March, intelligence police arrested Roberto Marrero, Guaido’s chief of staff, accusing him leading a “terrorist cell.”
The ruling Socialists have jailed or forced many of their most prominent opponents into exile, including Leopoldo Lopez, Guaido’s political mentor, who was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison after launching a wave of demonstrations. He was released to house arrest in July 2017 under orders to keep quiet; intelligence police are stationed in front of his home.
Although Guaido and his allies have prepared for an arrest, he said he was still coming to terms with what prison would mean for him personally. The regime has been accused of human-rights violations that include torture and extrajudicial killings.
“I’ve had to see evil up close,” Guaido said. “But nothing can prepare you for being kidnapped, killed or watching your family suffer.”
The U.S., Guaido’s most outspoken international backer, has explicitly warned against harming the opposition leader. Already, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Venezuela’s crumbling oil industry and top regime officials. But so far America has stopped short of direct action to topple Maduro.
Guaido says he has been in touch with representatives of U.S. and other foreign governments, who have expressed concern over the campaign against him and pledged continued support. He’s now hoping to capitalize on widespread anger over the lack of water and electricity, and has called supporters to the streets this weekend for another round of nationwide demonstrations.
Repression is bound to backfire, he said.
“This strategy will not work for the regime,” Guaido said. “It’s digging its own grave while we’re in complete collapse.”