Venezuela’s self-declared interim president, Juan Guaido, returned to his nation Monday to cheers from supporters and uncertainty about whether Nicolas Maduro’s government would have him arrested.
Guaido arrived at the main airport in Caracas, the capital, just after noon local time and was greeted by hundreds of supporters.
“We continue to mobilize, showing our faces to the people,” Guaido told reporters at the airport. “We are strong and we continue to go forward. We will end this usurpation very soon.”
At a downtown rally soon afterward, the opposition leader told followers he would continue to agitate for Maduro’s removal from the presidency and that he would not be intimidated by the socialist leader’s threats.
“There is only one thing that defeats hate and that is love, and that is what we are doing, serving all the people of Venezuela,” Guaido told thousands of supporters at Sadel Square in the capital.
Guaido, who declared himself interim president on Jan. 23, was returning from a nine-day tour of Latin American countries that included a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Bogota, Colombia. He left his home country despite a travel ban imposed by Maduro, who has continued to threaten the young leader with imprisonment.
Maduro has said Guaido “will have to face justice.” He told ABC in a Feb. 25 interview, “He can’t come and go, and the law has prohibited him from leaving the country.”
Guaido told followers that he had no problem reentering the country. He said immigration authorities at Maiquetia “Simon Bolivar” International Airport did not seize his passport but greeted him with “welcome, president.”
He said his welcome at the airport showed that the “chain of command is broken…. The great majority, more than 80%, are in favor of a change.”
He called on Venezuelans to participate in another mass demonstration on Saturday.
Despite Guaido’s defiance, where his movement goes from here remains uncertain.
He has enlisted the support of more than 50 countries as well as multinational bodies in support of his calls for Maduro’s resignation. But the socialist leader still controls the armed forces. Although up to 700 military personnel have deserted in recent weeks, the command appears to still favor Maduro, a former bus driver and union leader.
During the rally, Guaido seemed intent on revitalizing a domestic opposition movement that may have stalled somewhat following his surprise departure from the country on Feb. 22 and his failed, U.S.-backed effort to inspire mass defections in the Venezuelan military via aid deliveries from neighboring Colombia and Brazil.
Venezuelan authorities successfully blocked the aid shipments, which Maduro labelled “poisonous” and a precursor to a U.S. invasion of Venezuela. The conflict on the Colombian and Brazilian borders between police and Guaido supporters trying to bring aid into the country left seven dead and at least 125 injured.
Despite the Maduro government’s vow to block aid, Guaido continued to stress the need for additional humanitarian aid to enter Venezuela, which has suffered from severe shortages of food and medical supplies.
Near the end of Monday’s rally, Guaido held up his cedula, or Venezuelan identification card, and kissed the document. He then made the sign of the cross. Guaido, who often has a serious and even grave demeanor during public addresses, seemed relieved, and even jubilant, to be back in his homeland. He frequently smiled at the crowd and engaged supporters in brief greetings.
Guaido and others joined in singing the Venezuelan national anthem as a young saxophone player wearing a T-shirt in the Venezuelan colors played. Later, a clearly emotional Guaido scaled scaffolding at the site to wave to gathered supporters before leaving the scene.
And he noted that he has been clear that he wanted an “orderly transfer” of power from the Maduro government.
Maduro had said previously that a possible arrest of Guaido would depend on the judicial branch, whose order was defied. But U.S. officials’ threats of retaliation, hinting at use of force, may have also persuaded Maduro.
Before Guaido arrived, Pence sent a message over his Twitter account saying the opposition leader’s safe return was “of the highest importance to the U.S. Any threats, violence, or intimidation against him will not be tolerated & will be met with swift response.”
President Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, also issued a warning via Twitter: “Any threats or acts against his safe return will be met with a strong and significant response from the United States and the international community.” Bolton sent a follow-up tweet after Guaido landed.
On Monday, diplomats from European and Latin American countries and the U.S. were at the airport to witness Guaido’s arrival.
The Maduro government has jailed other opposition leaders. Leopoldo Lopez continues to live under house arrest in Caracas. Antonio Ledezma lives in exile.
Maduro’s reelection in May was widely criticized as a sham after several potential opposing candidates were disqualified from running.