Guaido Vows He Will Return to Venezuela. What's Unclear Is How

(Bloomberg) -- Beyond breaking autocratic President Nicolas Maduro’s grip on Venezuela’s armed forces and ushering humanitarian aid into the hungry nation, Juan Guaido now faces a more immediate challenge: returning home.

Guaido, head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, defied a foreign-travel ban and slipped into neighboring Colombia last week to lead a drive to bring thousands of tons of food and medicine across Venezuela’s border crossings. But the regime brutally beat back the effort, killing at least four, injuring hundreds and leaving the 35-year-old lawmaker stuck outside his country as tries to rally Venezuelans behind his claim to the presidency.

On Tuesday, Guaido announced in a video message that he would return to Caracas “very soon,” yet provided no details. After disobeying a government that has exiled and thrown hundreds of dissidents behind bars, he risks not only being merely blocked from re-entering Venezuela, but being tossed into jail.

Maduro Undeterred

The U.S., which along with some 50 other nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader after sham elections, has threatened severe repercussions if Maduro takes direct action against his chief rival. Still, Tomas Straka, a historian at Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas, says the government has so far been undeterred by crippling sanctions and isolation.

“The government has shown it’s willing to assume costs that go far against common sense,” he said.

Maduro insisted that aid was the precursor to an invasion, and he used security forces to turn back waves of activists moving the food and medicine. They sent volleys of tear gas, plastic pellets and sometimes even bullets flying around international crossings. Aid convoys were set ablaze, as masked pro-Maduro gangs terrorized residents in border towns.

While the opposition failed to break the blockade, Venezuela’s ruling socialists were widely condemned for the crackdown. On Wednesday, dozens of diplomats walked out in protest when Venezuela’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, took to the podium at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Stepping Out

In a video Guaido posted on Twitter, he said meetings with international partners since Monday’s summit of the so-called Lima Group of nations opposed to Maduro helped formulate the opposition’s strategy for the days ahead. “This movement is absolutely irreversible, as is the transition of power. We will increase pressure on the regime, we will execute all options to achieve the people’s liberation,” Guaido said.

Yet some fear the opposition leader may have left at a crucial time and risks losing momentum in his efforts to persuade the armed forces, Venezuela’s most powerful institution, to break ranks. More than 400 soldiers and police have abandoned their posts since Saturday, fleeing to Colombia or Brazil, but not one member of the top brass who commands troops has switched sides.

“If he wants the military to join him, then it would be a lot easier for them to do it if they had Guaido by their side and not in Colombia or elsewhere,” Dmitris Pantoulas, a Caracas political analyst, said.

New Focus

Further complicating matters, a bill to give members of military amnesty for corruption and rights abuses if they defect has stalled in Guaido’s own National Assembly amid a backlash from hard-line lawmakers who say it’s too forgiving.

Now, Guaido says he plans to focus on reaching Venezuela’s public servants, who he claims are “pushing for change." There are about 4.5 million public sector employees in Venezuela, or about half the country’s formal work force, according to the Autonomous Front in Defense of Employment, Pay and Labor, an independent union group.

He also said he would hold a national rally on the day he returns to Venezuela, but that may not happen soon. On Wednesday, the opposition’s envoy to Brazil said Guaido would travel there to meet with President Jair Bolsonaro the following day.

But, when Guaido does return, a confrontation may be inevitable. Maduro has said Guaido “will have to face justice” in Venezuela. And earlier this week, Elliott Abrams, who is in charge of steering U.S. policy on Venezuela said the Trump administration is “deeply concerned” about Guaido’s safety as he prepares to return after defying the travel ban laid down by the Maduro-dominated Supreme Court.

Straka, the historian, says that if Guaido manages to enter -- even in the same clandestine way that he left -- it will show he has significant support internationally and at home. “It will be a demonstration of force, and it would show that the dueling forces are at least equal,” he said.

On Tuesday, Guiado suggested he would do just that. “I did not take on this responsibility to exercise it from anywhere outside Venezuela,” he said. “So we’ll see each other in Caracas very soon.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.