CARACAS — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó remained defiant Wednesday after the government of President Nicolás Maduro moved to strip him of his parliamentary immunity and begin investigating him for a range of alleged crimes.
But as the political and humanitarian crises in Venezuela escalate, some here are taking the threat against the U.S-backed leader seriously.
“The government is only making time,” warned Daniel Álvarez, a 41-year-old store manager in Caracas. “They are waiting for the streets to cool down and the allied countries to lower their guard.”
The vote late Tuesday by Maduro loyalists was the latest in a number of moves aimed at intimidating Guaidó and his supporters. The Maduro government has frozen Guaidó’s assets, prohibited him from leaving the country and detained his chief of staff. Police have broken up protests and paramilitary forces have menaced protesters.
Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president in January after Maduro claimed victory in elections widely viewed as fraudulent.
The United States and more than 50 other countries have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Russia, China and Cuba back Maduro.
The conflict is heating up amid a deepening humanitarian crisis in this South American country of 30 million people. Hunger, mass outages of power and water, hyperinflation and a contracting economy are driving Venezuelans in all social classes to desperation.
U.S. and other officials have warned Maduro against arresting Guaidó. But analysts say Maduro is trying to see how much he can get away with.
“It’s salami tactics,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the New York-based Americas Society/Council of the Americas. “You cut a slice and see what happens. Maduro is trying to get closer and closer to Guaidó, and to the extent there is no reaction, he’ll keep going.”
Luis Vicente León is director of the Venezuelan polling agency Datanálisis.
“Maduro can’t pressure Guaidó directly because he risks losing public support and provoking the international community to respond,” he said. “He is measuring the impact of each of his decisions to see how far the United States will let him go and waiting Guaidó out.”
The unanimous vote Tuesday by the National Constituent Assembly — a body of Maduro loyalists created in 2017 to counter the constitutional National Assembly — followed hours of debate. Members denounced Guaidó as a “traitor” and said Venezuela would not be intimidated by foreign imperialists.
“We will be the ones to put Guaidó in jail, not Nicolás Maduro,” assembly leader Diosdado Cabello said. “Give justice time.”
Guaidó told reporters outside his Caracas home he was moving forward with plans for massive protests this weekend.
“I want to know which of you, which regime official would agree to kidnap the president of the republic,” he taunted.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described legislation on Wednesday that would increase sanctions on Venezuelan officials and their families while extending immunity to those who recognize Guaidó if “they have no blood on their hands.”
Venezuelans are split on how seriously to take Maduro’s threats. There is as much street art across Caracas supporting Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, as there there is graffiti condemning him as a “usurper.”
Real estate agent Marielena Melville, 66, is relying on the masses who have turned out for Guaidó’s rallies around the country. As long as he has their support, she said Wednesday, “the dictatorship won’t dare to touch him.”
Others noted the case of opposition leader Leopoldo López, who faced similar threats from the government before his arrest in 2014. López has been released from prison but remains under house arrest.
“It won’t be hard for them to do the same with Guaidó,” said Nicola Miranda, an 18-year-old university student.
Maduro continues to enjoy support from Chavistas, particularly in poorer communities.
José Reyes, a retired electrician in the Caracas slum of Petare, said Guaidó is to blame for Venezuela’s crisis.
“He is fulfilling the United States’ mission,” said Reyes, 80. “How much are they paying him? I don’t know.
“That fact that we are living in the dark is entirely his fault.”