When Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaidó left the country a week ago, he slipped out like a hunted man, defying a travel ban by crossing into rural Colombia overland. On Monday, he returned in the most high-profile way possible: landing at the country’s principal airport in Maiquetía in broad daylight.
Guaidó’s bold return — despite the threat of arrest or worse — has given the opposition a shot in the arm at a time when the political battle between Guaidó and Nicolás Maduro for control of the country is grinding into its second month.
The 35-year-old Guaidó had called for nationwide demonstrations Monday to provide cover for his return, but even he seemed surprised that he’d managed to get through immigration and military checkpoints so easily. Speaking to a large crowd of supporters in Caracas, he said it was evident that the military was no longer following instructions of the “usurper” Maduro.
“It’s obvious, after all the threats, that someone didn’t do their job. A lot of people didn’t do their jobs,” he said of the security forces that let him pass. “The chain of command is broken.”
While he thanked the military for their passive support, he said it was time for them to openly turn against Maduro as more than 700 soldiers and police already have. He also called on the armed forces to arrest the pro-government gangs, or colectivos, that have generated much of the violence.
“Being accomplices through omission is also a crime,” he said. “Armed forces, what are you waiting for?”
Maduro and his allies stayed largely silent on Monday and state-run television devoted much of its coverage to Venezuela’s beaches, where Carnival partygoers were congregating.
In a tweet, Maduro said the world was “witness” to the “imperial aggressions that Venezuela is facing.”
“We continue carrying the flag for the free nations that raise their voice against the meddling of empires,” he said.
Guaidó returned from a weeklong trip that took him to Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador, where he said he was trying to raise awareness and humanitarian aid for the economically shattered country.
But he said he was also explaining to the region’s leaders that his fight is less about ideology and more about human rights. He said Maduro, who calls himself a socialist and a leftist, was responsible for deaths, arrests, political persecution and destroying the economy through corruption.
“This has nothing to do with left wing or right wing,” he said. “They are simply murderers who are massacring our people.”
Guaidó rose to prominence on Jan. 23 when he swore himself in as president. As the head of congress, he said it was his constitutional duty to assume the office because Maduro had committed fraud to win reelection last year. Over the last month, Guaidó has been recognized by more than 50 nations and has riled up a once lackluster opposition with massive marches.
According to a recent Datanalisis poll, Guaidó has an approval rating of 61 percent while Maduro’s has hit an all-time low of 14 percent.
But Maduro still controls the courts and the Constitutional Assembly. Crucially, he still seems to have the loyalty of the high command of the armed forces. And unless there’s a major defection in the military, he’s likely to cling to power.
“Guaidó right now has the legitimacy of fifty-plus countries — with the number of democracies around the world recognizing him continuing to grow by the day,” said Jason Marczack with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. “He has to show that he has power. He needs to show that his power goes beyond getting people into the streets because, frankly, getting people into the streets is not solving Venezuela’s issues.”
On Monday, Guaidó acknowledged that there may be a growing sense of frustration that change hasn’t happened sooner, but he told his followers the only avenue for success is to continue the street protests. “All this sacrifice cannot have been in vain,” he said.
On Tuesday, Guaidó will be opening up a new front line against Maduro by calling labor unions and government workers to a meeting. Those two groups — particularly the public workers — have been key to Maduro’s hold on power and often form the bulk of pro-government rallies. If Guaidó can get mass and high-profile defections from the public sector, it would be a huge boost for his cause. He’s also called for new protests on Saturday.
Guaidó’s return ends days of speculation about how he’d get back into the country without being arrested. Many expected him to go back the way he left: over the country’s porous 1,275 mile border with Colombia and with little fanfare.
His arrival at the Simón Bolívar international airport in Maiquetía, on the outskirts of Caracas, caught many by surprise. As he walked through the terminal he was mobbed by followers chanting “Yes, we can!” and screaming his name.
His car was escorted back to Caracas — a 45-minute drive — by a convoy of diplomats who recognize him as president.
“We are hoping he will have a safe return,” Germany’s ambassador to Venezuela Daniel Kriener told reporters at the airport, saying Guaidó had a “very important role to play in overcoming the crisis.”
But Guaidó also had the eyes of the world on him. Colombia, Panama and others warned Maduro he’d be playing with fire if he moved to arrest the politician.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence sent out a tweet Monday saying Guaidó’s “safe return to Venezuela is of the highest importance to the U.S. Any threats, violence, or intimidation against him will not be tolerated and will be met with a swift response.”
Some have speculated the regime would move against Guaidó for violating the travel ban handed down by the Supreme Court. He’s also likely to face charges for his role in organizing last week’s attempt to drive cargo trucks into Venezuela carrying humanitarian aid. That convoy, which the Maduro administration said was tantamount to an invasion, was stopped on the border with Colombia amid clashes that left hundreds injured.
Maduro says he has the right to lead the country through 2025 and said it’s Guaidó who is destroying democracy by trying to seize the presidency with Washington’s help but without ever running in a presidential election.
Guaidó is asking Maduro to step down so he can form a transitional government and call for new elections. In a country long used to strongmen, Guaidó, an engineer and father of a 22-month-old daughter, has portrayed himself as a “humble public servant” who only has the country’s best interests in mind.
Referring to Maduro and his charismatic mentor Hugo Chávez, who ran the country from 1999 until his death in 2013, Guaidó said the time of heavy-handed leaders was over.
“Never again should we let the powerful take advantage of our people,” he said.
Shortly before leading the crowds in singing the national anthem, Guaidó thanked them for allowing him back into the country.
“I am here thanks to you. I was able to return thanks to you staying mobilized,” he said. “It’s a small victory today that we must celebrate.”