Guaidó, traveling on a commercial flight from Lisbon, landed shortly after 4:30 p.m. at Simón Bolívar International Airport in this Caribbean city 13 miles north of Caracas. His three-week trip defied a government travel ban, but security officials did not detain him at the airport.
He was instead allowed to pass through customs and into an arrivals hall, where he was greeted by rival groups of chanting supporters and insult-hurling pro-government demonstrators. Confusion ensued as loyalists of President Nicolás Maduro, whom Guaidó is seeking to oust, chased after him.
Guaidó, surrounded by personal security and escorted by police, was hustled into a waiting vehicle. It sped toward a square in eastern Caracas, where he spoke later Tuesday to a gathering of a few hundred supporters.
"Today, I brought the commitment of the free world, the recognition of a struggle of years," he told them. "Today, I challenged them and we entered Venezuela. We will continue to challenge them in every corner of Venezuela. Cowards. They are alone and isolated, and they do not represent anyone. Coward Nicolás."
The 36-year-old National Assembly president, recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by the United States and more than 50 other nations, slipped out of this South American nation last month to rally international backing for his effort to oust Maduro. He returns to an uncertain fate and a host of critical challenges.
The opposition said a caravan of pro-Guaidó lawmakers traveling to greet him was stopped by police, prompting some to start a miles-long walk toward the airport. About 40 other lawmakers who had traveled separately managed to arrive by early afternoon to await Guaidó’s return. Several journalists and opposition lawmakers said they had been pursed and struck by pro-government loyalists.
“Guaidó has not committed any crime, so there should be no reason for them not to let him back in,” opposition lawmaker Manuela Bolívar said as she stood near the airport’s arrival gates. “But we are facing a lack of the rule of law, and anything can happen. When you live in Venezuela, you have a sword of Damocles over your head.”
Guaidó’s trip was only his second outside Venezuela since January 2019, when he declared Maduro a “usurper” and claimed an interim presidency pending free and fair elections. Judges loyal to Maduro issued a court order last year forbidding Guaidó to leave the country, but he is calculating that Maduro’s government will not risk the international backlash of arresting him after he was embraced by President Trump and other leaders.
In public comments two weeks ago, Diosdado Cabello, a senior member of Maduro’s government, suggested that Guaidó would not be detained upon his return — but the government is unpredictable. U.S. officials have warned Maduro not to act against him.
“Any harm that may be caused on Juan Guaidó . . . will have very significant consequences,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters last week, speaking on the condition of anonymity under the ground rules of the briefing. “So, therefore, they should tread very carefully in that regards.”
Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas, said it is unlikely Maduro would risk escalating international tension by detaining Guaidó.
“It is in the best interest of Maduro that Guaidó remains either in Venezuela without doing much or out of the country,” he said. “But not imprisoned, because that would mean more sanctions against his government.”
At the airport Tuesday, a group of workers from Conviasa, a state-owned airline blacklisted by the United States last week, chanted anti-Guaidó slogans.
“All Conviasa workers are against these sanctions,” said a 50-year-old Conviasa employee who declined to give her name. “Guaidó is a traitor, and Trump is a criminal.”
A video posted to Twitter showed a woman yelling and throwing a liquid on Guaidó. A photo appeared to show his white dress shirt torn open. Aides said he was manhandled by Maduro backers.
Guaidó’s trip appeared to be at least symbolically successful. He met with Colombian President Iván Duque, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He delivered a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and greeted crowds in Madrid and Miami.
After days of speculation about whether or how Trump would receive him, the White House responded last week with grand gestures. Trump made Guaidó a surprise guest at his State of Union address and later met with him in the Oval Office, where he promised further steps against Maduro.
The senior administration official said unspecified but “significant” new sanctions would be announced this month. “We are probably halfway to what maximum pressure could look like,” the official said last week. “There’s a lot of tools and a lot of targets at our disposal, and we plan to use as many of them as necessary in order to fulfill our goal of an end to this dictatorship and a democratic transition in Venezuela.”
Maduro’s socialist government is accused of stealing elections and torturing, kidnapping and detaining its opponents. Venezuela is struggling under hyperinflation; shortages of food, water and medicine; and government repression. Nearly 5 million people have fled. But there have been signs of new economic life in the capital of Caracas, at least, as Maduro’s government has embraced limited free-market policies aimed at easing the crisis.
In Guaidó’s absence, Maduro’s government increased pressure on the opposition. Masked members of Venezuela’s intelligence police raided Guaidó’s offices in eastern Caracas in late January. Hours after Guaidó met with Trump last week, six executives from the U.S. refiner Citgo were moved from house arrest to the Helicoide, Venezuela’s most notorious political prison.
Guaidó faces a complicated moment in his leadership. Maduro’s government tried last month to unseat Guaidó as the head of the National Assembly, the position through which he claims to be the country’s rightful president. His would-be successor, Luis Parra — an opposition lawmaker allegedly bribed by the government — is not recognized by the United States, European powers or most Latin American nations. But that has added another layer of difficulty to Guaidó’s mission. Repeatedly blocked from the National Assembly building, Guaidó has held legislative sessions with loyal lawmakers elsewhere in the capital.
But Guaidó’s opposition is divided on the strategy going forward. Some lawmakers are backing Maduro’s call to hold parliamentary elections this year. Guaidó has focused on demanding new presidential elections.
As Guaidó has called more Venezuelans to the streets, participation in his rallies in recent months has diminished.
Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Guaido’s biggest challenge will be translating the international support he received during his global tour into new momentum on the ground. “I don’t see much willingness to take the streets again,” he said. “It will be a difficult year for him.”
Faiola reported from Miami.