Rebel Venezuelan Colonel Calling for Uprising Is Arrested

(Bloomberg) -- A fugitive Venezuelan colonel who has been actively and publicly seeking the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro has been detained by the government, two people close to him said on Tuesday.

Colonel Oswaldo Garcia Palomo, 54, who retired from the national guard and was living clandestinely abroad, had slipped back into the country where he was captured, they said. A Twitter feed associated with him and his group issued an alert with his picture saying he’s being held by the military police.

“We hold the regime responsible for his physical well-being,” the tweet said. It called on Juan Guaido -- the young leader of the national assembly who last week received broad international support as he declared himself interim president -- to save him.

“President Guaido,” it said, referring to him also as the commander in chief, “the members of the military want to support you.”

Garcia’s capture is a sign that, despite the growing support for Guaido to replace Maduro -- whose May re-election was widely condemned as rigged -- the government remains in charge of key elements of the military apparatus. Maduro has granted generals top posts in mining and oil and jailed adversaries within the armed services.

Garcia was unusual in that he agreed to an on-the-record interview with Bloomberg in December in which he said that he and his colleagues are “working every day to combine international and national forces, and remove the government through the use of arms so the country doesn’t continue to bleed out and die.” The interview took place outside Venezuela.

The retired colonel was among scores of officers and special-forces troops across all four branches of the Venezuelan armed forces who launched one of the most serious failed coups last year, known as Operation Constitution. The plan was infiltrated and dozens of his fellow plotters were arrested; he escaped and continued to agitate.

He re-entered Venezuela recently and in messages late last week to Bloomberg indicated that he was planning action.

“Pay attention to me in the coming days,” he said.

Antonio Rivero, a retired army general living in exile in Miami, said he has been in constant contact with Garcia, whom he referred to as a fellow “operator” in the efforts to make members armed forces break ranks against Maduro.

“There was a mission in the works, it’s still in the works, but we don’t know the status of Oswaldo or the people who were accompanying him,” Rivero said “It’s necessary to protect his life, because he’s a very feared man, who knows about many different operations that have been carried out, and they’re clearly going to try to get information out of him.”

The failed coup that Garcia took part in last year was one of several such attempts, suggesting at least some restiveness in the military as Venezuela, once a wealthy country with massive oil reserves, descends rapidly into a crime-ridden chaos of hopelessness and hunger.

Still, the military and its branches seem to be following orders. Early last week, about two dozen national guardsmen raided Caracas military outposts, stealing weapons and holding other soldiers captive. Their actions were quickly quashed and 27 people were detained. In 2017, government forces beat back a wave of anti-government demonstrations.

With Guaido’s self-inauguration last week, there is a sense that Maduro’s ability to hold on is far more tentative. Most Western countries as well many of Venezuela’s neighbors have recognized Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader. The U.S. has also been working to give Guaido the economic means of success, imposing an oil embargo and handing over state bank accounts to him.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.