CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for nationwide demonstrations on Monday as he returns to Venezuela, in what could be a pivotal moment for the U.S.-backed campaign to oust authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro.
“Tomorrow we face a historic challenge. We will return to our country,” Guaidó said Sunday night in a video appearance carried on Facebook Live and other platforms. He urged “everyone into the streets of Venezuela,” starting at 11 a.m.
Guaidó slipped into neighboring Colombia on Feb. 22 for what opposition leaders had billed as a potential turning point in Venezuela’s political crisis — a showdown with security forces on the border over the passage of tons of international humanitarian assistance. But the security forces largely stayed loyal to Maduro and dispersed protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, leaving truckloads of aid stranded outside a country in desperate economic straits.
Maduro has said that Guaidó will “face justice” if he returns, noting that he defied a court order barring him from leaving the South American country. Guaidó has not said exactly when or where he will reenter Venezuela. He has been on a tour of Latin American nations and was in Ecuador on Sunday.
The United States and other countries have warned Maduro against detaining the opposition leader, who has been recognized by much of the world as Venezuela’s interim president.
But it’s unclear whether such pressure will sway Maduro, who is fighting for his political life. Since Guaidó declared himself interim president in late January, he has become the biggest threat to Maduro since the former union leader succeeded Hugo Chávez in 2013 as head of a radical leftist government. Tens of thousands of people have responded to Guaidó’s calls for anti-government demonstrations in recent weeks.
If he is jailed, however, the opposition campaign could stall.
In his speech Sunday night, Guaidó acknowledged the risk he faced. “If the regime tries to kidnap me, to carry out a coup, we know the steps to take,” he said, urging supporters to respond with mass protests.
Any move by Maduro and his government to detain him would be “one of the last mistakes they make,” he added.
Margarita López Maya, a Venezuelan political scientist, predicted that Maduro would not be dissuaded by threats of censure by other nations, saying: “I think Maduro has shown he’s ready to assume the political costs of appearing a monster in the international community.”
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, said Maduro might not be aware of the potential consequences of detaining Guaidó.
“He doesn’t seem to realize the urgency of the situation. He feels stronger than he probably should,” Smilde said. He added that Maduro faces a classic “dictator’s dilemma” of being surrounded by “yes-men” who aren’t informing him of the country’s growing isolation and economic turmoil.
Maduro, 56, did not comment Sunday but has accused Guaidó, 35, of being part of a U.S. plot to overthrow his government.
On Sunday, John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, said that if Maduro detained the opposition leader, “it would just hasten the day that he leaves.” President Trump has said that the United States is maintaining “all options” to deal with the Venezuela crisis — even military action — but his aides have played down that possibility. Bolton, speaking in an interview with “Fox News Sunday,” said that Washington wants “a peaceful transition of power.”
Maduro has grown increasingly unpopular as Venezuela’s oil-based economy has collapsed, as a result of government mismanagement and lower petroleum prices in recent years. The International Monetary Fund has warned that inflation could reach 10 million percent this year. Food and medicine have become scarce.
Jazmín Fernández, 47, a chemical engineer who was walking her three dogs in Caracas on Sunday, said she was ready to join the protests Guaidó had called for, saying: “I’m not scared. I have already been hit in many marches. I am desperate. I want Maduro out.”
But Maribel Urbina, 50, a cashier at a stand producing Venezuelan cornmeal cakes, said she became fearful after being tear-gassed at protests in 2017. “I’m not going” to the Monday demonstration, she said. “I’m a coward.”
Some Caracas residents said that Monday was a poor choice of date for a protest, because it’s a holiday marking Carnival, and some people had left town.
Maduro has been able to ride out years of protests by relying on military and paramilitary groups. Bolton said, however, that “there are countless conversations going on below the surface as to where the military will go.”
Rachelle Krygier contributed to this report.