Venezuela Interim President Juan Guaidó on Thursday demanded the release of his chief of staff after security forces arrested Roberto Marrero in a provocative predawn raid that threatens to escalate the political conflict.
The detention of one of Guaidós closest allies and friends is being seen as a direct challenge to Washington and the more than 50 other nations who see the young politician as the country’s only legitimate leader.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Guaidó called the act a “kidnapping” designed to “intimidate” him and his followers. But he said he would not stop until Nicolás Maduro is ousted from the presidential palace and new elections are called.
And he asked, once again, for the armed forces to turn their back on Maduro and help find a peaceful solution to the impasse.
“We are going to redouble our efforts,” Guaidó said. “We’re not here to twist arms but to extend our hand. ... It’s the Nicolás Maduro regime that’s making the people of Venezuela pay a price.”
Guaidó said dozens of SEBIN political police broke into Marrero’s home at about 2 a.m. and planted rifles and a grenade to justify his detention. But it’s unclear who might have ordered such a brazen move. Guaidó said he’d received calls from high-level members of the security forces apologizing and saying they didn’t have anything to do with it. Those phone calls are one more sign that the government is in disarray and that people are trying to distance themselves from Maduro, he said.
He also warned rank and file soldiers that Maduro and his cronies don’t care about them and are only looking out for their own interests.
“They’re trying to save themselves, but we’re trying to save everyone, which is different,” Guaidó said. “We’re trying to save the country.”
Sergio Vergara, an opposition congressman and a neighbor of Marrero’s, said his home had been raided moments before his colleague’s, perhaps by mistake. Talking to reporters Thursday, Vergara said at least 15 men in ski masks had broken into his home and forced him to lie on the ground and arrested his driver, Luis Aguilar.
The detention of Marrero and Aguilar drew an immediate international response.
“The United States condemns raids by Maduro’s security services and detention of Roberto Marrero, Chief of Staff to Interim President [Guaidó],” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter. “We call for his immediate release. We will hold accountable those involved.”
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, said the U.S. and its allies need to “react immediately,” saying that otherwise the Maduro regime would be emboldened to continue attacking Guaidó’s inner circle.
National Security Adviser John Bolton said Maduro had made “another big mistake,” and said Marrero’s arrest “will not go unanswered.”
The U.S. and others have already hit Venezuela with crippling financial and oil sanctions, and it’s unclear what additional steps might be taken to influence Maduro and his United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Venezuela’s embassy in Washington, which recognizes Guaidó as president, accused Maduro of using terrorist tactics.
“Maduro has full responsibility for this kidnapping, and we demand the regime to immediately release them,” the office said in a statement. “The dictator is using state sponsored terrorism to disrupt the peaceful transition to democracy, as he persecutes the political factions conducting efforts aimed at restoring peace and prosperity for all Venezuelans.”
Colombian President Iván Duque called the arrest “a vile and criminal persecution by the dictatorship.” And Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said his country would take “concrete actions” if Marrero was not freed immediately. Twelve members of the Lima Group, a bloc of largely Latin American countries, also demanded Marrero’s release.
The country’s political crisis captured the world’s attention when Guaidó, 35, announced on Jan. 23 that he was assuming the presidency in defiance of Maduro. Maduro, for his part, considers Guaidó a Washington puppet who is trying to seize the presidency illegally. The 56-year-old leader says last year’s elections — considered fraudulent by many — give him the right to rule through 2025.
The political impasse has sparked fears that Guaidó himself will be jailed. On Thursday Guaidó said the government didn’t have the power or popular support to detain him, but said even if it happened, change was inevitable.
“You want to come after me? Then go for it,” he taunted Maduro. “Our route is clear.”
Guaidó and his allies are holding meetings and rallies around the country to prepare for a mass march on the capital they’re calling “Operation Liberty.”
“Operation Liberty will not only free Roberto [Marrero], it will free all of Venezuela,” Guaidó said. “We’re close to a real victory, which is to be able to help our country.”