Venezuela opposition leader briefly detained after challenging Maduro

Juan Guaidó was seized after he declared himself ready to assume the presidency in a bold challenge to its leader Nicolás Maduro

Venezuelan secret police seized and then swiftly released a prominent opposition leader, less than 48 hours after he declared himself ready to assume the presidency of his crisis-stricken country in a bold challenge to its leader Nicolás Maduro.

Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s opposition-run parliament, was reportedly taken by agents from the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (Sebin) on Sunday morning as he travelled north out of the capital, Caracas.

On Friday the politician threw down the gauntlet to Hugo Chávez’s heir, telling a rally Maduro was an illegitimate “usurper” and declaring that he therefore had the constitutional right to assume leadership of the country until fresh elections were held. Several regional powers, including Brazil and Colombia, voiced support for that move.

A video circulating on social media showed the moment of Guaidó’s detention, which sparked an immediate wave of international criticism.

The head of the Organisation of American States expressed his “absolute condemnation” of what he called “the kidnapping of Venezuela’s interim president”. “The international community must stop the crimes of Maduro and his goons,” Luis Almagro tweeted.

The United States secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, denounced the “arbitrary detention”, adding: “The US and world are watching”.

Two foreign journalists – from the Colombian broadcaster Caracol and CNN’s Spanish language channel, CNN en Español – were also reported to have been detained.

However, less than an hour after the first reports of Guaidó’s detention he was released. “I am with him already,” tweeted the politician’s wife, Fabiana Rosales, adding: “The dictatorship will not crush his fighting spirit.”

Agradezco a todos la inmediata reacción de apoyo ante el atropello de la dictadura contra mi esposo @JGuaido. Estoy ya con él. La dictadura no podrá doblegar su espíritu de lucha. Vamos rumbo al Cabildo Abierto.

— Fabiana Rosales (@FabiiRosales) January 13, 2019

Stalin González, another prominent opposition leader, tweeted: “They will not scare us with acts of violence and arbitrariness. We will carry on fighting until we achieve the change Venezuela needs.”

No nos van a amedrentar con actos de violencia y arbitrariedades. Seguiremos luchando hasta alcanzar el cambio que Venezuela necesita.

— Stalin González (@stalin_gonzalez) January 13, 2019

Venezuela’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, told state media the detention was a “unilateral and irregular” act carried out by rogue agents who were being investigated and dismissed.

On Friday Venezuela’s chavista prison minister, María Iris Varela Rangel, had tweeted a warning to Guaidó after his challenge to her leader: “I’ve already prepared your cell and your uniform, I hope you name your cabinet quickly so I know who is going down with you.”

Addressing a rally of supporters following his release, Guaidó painted his brief detention as the result of infighting between members of Maduro’s panicked administration. “Look what they are doing. They are desperate in [the presidential palace] Miraflores! They don’t know who is giving the orders!” he said, calling on Venezuelan citizens and members of the armed forces to unite against Maduro.

“We are survivors. Not victims!” Guaidó said, repeating a call for renewed street protests.

The secret police operation brought to a close a dramatic week for the oil-rich South American nation which appeared to signal the start of a new and potentially tumultuous phase in Venezuela’s economic and political crisis.

On Thursday, Maduro, who assumed leadership of Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution after his 2013 death, shrugged off a storm of international condemnation to start his second six-year term in office.

But with Venezuela’s economic collapse accelerating and international pressure mounting as Latin America swings back to the political right, many doubt Maduro will cling to power for that long.

Maduro mocked Guaidó on Friday at a summit of Latin American leftists in Caracas, claiming most citizens did not even know who he was.

“It is a show … a Hollywood-esque show,” Maduro said of his opponent’s bid to replace him.


Tom Phillips Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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