World / Politics

Venezuela opposition lawmaker seeks refuge in Argentine Embassy after colleague's arrest

Reuters

A Venezuelan opposition lawmaker sought refuge at the Argentine Embassy in Caracas on Thursday, according to an Argentine foreign ministry source and a Reuters witness, a day after the arrest of a top figure in the opposition-controlled legislature.

Richard Blanco of the Brave Peoples’ Alliance party had entered the embassy on Thursday morning, said the Argentine official, who asked not to be identified. “He (Blanco) is there as a guest, we can confirm that,” the official said.

On Wednesday, Edgar Zambrano, the opposition-run National Assembly’s vice president, said he had been arrested by intelligence agents.

Venezuela’s information ministry, Argentina’s foreign ministry and its embassy in Caracas did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Blanco and Zambrano are among 10 opposition lawmakers stripped of parliamentary immunity by the Supreme Court this week. The crackdown came after they joined opposition leader Juan Guaido in rallies last month to spur a military uprising against socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing Maduro’s 2018 reelection was illegitimate. About 50 countries, including the United States and much of Latin America, have recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.

Maduro’s government has so far avoided arresting Guaido, which would likely provoke a strong backlash. But the recent measures suggest the ruling Socialist Party is seeking to isolate him by pursuing key political allies.

“We take it as a given that the regime is going to keep escalating its repression,” Guaido said at a news conference. He also called for Venezuelans to take to the streets on Saturday for fresh protests against Maduro.

Zambrano was arrested on Wednesday by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service who used a tow truck to drag away his vehicle with him inside. He tweeted that he was being taken to the SEBIN headquarters in Caracas. Authorities have not confirmed where he was being detained.

The move drew swift condemnation from opposition leaders and the United States, which argues Maduro is a dictator who has undermined the rule of law.

“We will continue to use the full weight of the U.S. government to hold accountable those who subvert democracy and the Venezuelan constitutional order, and threaten the safety of the duly-elected National Assembly of Venezuela,” a senior White House official said on Thursday, on condition of anonymity.

The decision to strip legislators of their immunity and to arrest Zambrano was condemned as “unconstitutional” in a statement on Thursday by the Lima Group, a regional bloc comprising Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Canada.

Other Guaido allies have already been jailed or fled to the embassies of sympathetic nations.

Lawmaker Marianella Magallanes, who was among those whose immunity was taken away this week, sought refuge in the Italian Embassy on Wednesday.

Guaido’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was arrested in March and remains in jail.

Last week, Leopoldo Lopez — Guaido’s political mentor — moved into Spain’s diplomatic residence after escaping house arrest to appear alongside Guaido during his call for the military to rise up.

The United States has slapped sanctions on state oil company PDVSA and several top figures in Maduro’s government in a bid to pressure Maduro to step aside so Guaido can take office and call new elections. This week, it removed sanctions on a former Venezuelan general it said broke with Maduro last week.

But Maduro retains control of the military and state functions. He has branded Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.