CARACAS, Venezuela — Opposition leader Juan Guaidó made a triumphant return to Venezuela on Monday after a 10-day absence, injecting fresh energy into the U.S.-backed campaign to push out authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro.
“We are here, Venezuela,” the 35-year-old declared, beaming and waving as he was encircled by television cameras. “We are strong. We are moving forward!”
Guaidó supporters had feared he might be arrested on arrival. The opposition leader, who has been recognized as interim president by the United States and more than 50 other countries, had defied a court order when he crossed the border Feb. 22 to lead an effort to bring truckloads of humanitarian aid into the country. He has since been traveling around Latin America, conferring with presidents who support his bid to unseat Maduro.
Diplomats from the United States, Europe and Latin America had gathered at the airport Monday to ensure Guaidó was not harmed. Officials including Britain’s foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, and Vice President Pence had publicly warned Maduro against detaining the opposition leader.
“@JGuaido’s safe return to Venezuela is of the highest importance to the U.S.,” Pence tweeted shortly before the opposition leader’s plane landed in Caracas. “Any threats, violence, or intimidation against him will not be tolerated & will be met with swift response. The world is watching.”
Maduro had said that Guaidó would “face justice” if he returned, and Venezuelans were uncertain until virtually the last minute about when and where he would arrive. Security was heavier than usual at the airport when Guaidó’s plane landed, reportedly after a flight from Panama. But the opposition leader cleared immigration and went on to lead a packed rally in a plaza in southeastern Caracas, with no interference from police.
Guaidó had called for anti-government demonstrations on Monday morning, and thousands of people poured into the streets in cities around the country. Similar rallies had frequently filled the streets since Guaidó declared himself Venezuela’s interim president Jan. 23, citing fraud in Maduro’s reelection victory last year. But many people feared the demonstrations would peter out unless the popular young leader returned.
“Guaidó’s arrival was vital to sustain and strengthen the opposition’s momentum, the hope for change and the consolidation of its leadership,” said Luis Vicente León, head of the Datanalisis polling agency. “It was not a viable political option to stay in exile. Being in prison would have also been a critical problem that could have destroyed the hope and structure of the opposition.”
Thousands of Guaidó’s supporters jammed a Caracas plaza and surrounding streets in the Las Mercedes neighborhood Monday, many dressed in white, to signify peace. As they heard he had arrived safely in Venezuela, they began cheering. Guaidó, tieless in a dark suit jacket, white shirt and jeans, was swarmed by people hugging him as he reached the plaza.
“We want to tell the government that we are here with Guaidó and that we are not afraid,” said Yesenia Carrillo, 39, a housewife who attended the rally.
Many appeared relieved and re-energized by Guaidó’s appearance. “The international pressure is causing the government to retreat, and that’s why Guaidó was able to enter,” said Giuseppe Di Yorio, 47, a computer engineer at the rally. “Now, we must continue to take to the streets.”
In his speech, Guaidó urged Venezuelans not to lose hope as they seek a transition that has been more difficult than the opposition had anticipated.
“We were all threatened. I was threatened with jail, with death,” he said, adding that Venezuelans would not give in. “We are stronger and more united than ever.”
He continued his appeals to the military — Maduro’s main line of defense — to switch sides. Guaidó even suggested that he was able to return to the country because of divisions in the armed forces.
“Attention, gentlemen of the armed forces — after all the threats, someone didn’t obey their orders. Many didn’t obey,” he said, adding that the “chain of command is broken.”
Brian Winter, a Latin America expert and vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, which promotes dialogue in the hemisphere, said it was possible that sympathetic members of the military helped prevent Guaidó’s arrest upon his return. Alternatively, he said, perhaps “the Maduro regime believes they can wait him out,” betting that the protests will subside over time. Whichever explanation is right, he said, “it speaks to Guaidó’s high popularity.”
Maduro is facing the greatest threat to his power since he became president in 2013, succeeding Hugo Chávez, who tried to turn this petroleum-rich country into a socialist state. In recent years, because of lower oil prices and government mismanagement, the economy has virtually collapsed, with soaring hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine. And the situation probably will get worse as recently imposed U.S. sanctions cut deeply into Venezuela’s oil revenue.
Maduro did not comment publicly on Guaidó’s return. On the president’s Twitter account Monday, he urged Venezuelans to enjoy Carnival holidays this week. He has dismissed the opposition leader as part of a U.S.-backed coup attempt.
Guaidó and his supporters had hoped to win a showdown with authorities Feb. 23, when the opposition tried to bring truckloads of international humanitarian assistance over the border against the orders of Maduro’s government. But the security forces stood firm.
The day before the event, Guaidó had traveled to Colombia, defying an order by the pro-Maduro supreme court barring him from leaving the country as his anti-government activities were investigated.
Guaidó’s next targets are the country’s estimated 2 million public employees. The opposition leader called for a meeting with their unions for Tuesday.
“We can’t let them use our public servants,” the opposition leader told Monday’s rally. The authorities, he said, often pressured the employees to attend pro-government rallies. “The moment,” said Guaidó, “has now come to say ‘Enough.’ ”