Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly who swore himself in as the leader of Venezuela, center, walks through a crowd during a military uprising in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg)

Afraid to Touch Guaido, Maduro Plays Waiting Game in Caracas

(Bloomberg) -- In the aftermath of a chaotic, and ultimately unsuccessful, uprising in Venezuela, few details about what exactly happened are clear.

But one key question at least has been answered: Nicolas Maduro, the autocrat clinging to power, has opted not to arrest his rival, Juan Guaido, allowing him for now to lead the opposition and keep trying to rally the people and the military to topple the regime.

And so Venezuela settles back into its strange status quo, with the armed forces sticking by Maduro, who won a rigged re-election last year, and the Trump administration standing by Guaido, the lawmaker more than 50 nations recognize as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

In a country with hundreds of political prisoners, Guaido’s freedom could come off as astonishing. For the unpopular Maduro, boxed in by U.S. sanctions and aware more could come down, giving Guaido room to maneuver makes sense. The longer the lawmaker and his allies strive and fail to turn frustration into full-blown rebellion, the better the regime’s chances it will stay in power. The battered opposition will, that betting goes, once again fade into irrelevance.

“Maduro understands that, strategically, it’s in his interest to watch Guaido unravel on his own,” said Geoff Ramsey, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human-rights organization. “By arresting Guaido, he would give the opposition a rallying cry.”

Afraid to Touch Guaido, Maduro Plays Waiting Game in Caracas

Some who participated in street demonstrations and clashes with security forces on Wednesday -- the day after Guaido tried and failed to spark a big military uprising -- had other theories.

“Maduro knows that if he does something to Guaido that the U.S. is going to do something worse,” said Ida Romero, banging on a pot in protest. Vixa Ramirez, an accountant, agreed: “They’re scared to grab him.”

Afraid to Touch Guaido, Maduro Plays Waiting Game in Caracas

Venezuela’s opposition held secret talks with Maduro’s inner circle to oust him and put in place an interim government, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing unidentified U.S. officials and members of the Venezuelan opposition. While the talks ultimately failed, they outlined the basis for future discussions, including guaranteeing that senior military officers would keep their jobs as Guaido took power, the report said.

President Donald Trump has bet heavily on Guaido, and U.S. officials have said repeatedly that a military intervention hasn’t been ruled out. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, top military leaders and National Security Adviser John Bolton all added new urgency to that message on Wednesday as they pressured Russia and Cuba to stop assisting Maduro’s regime.

Pompeo said on CNN on Tuesday that the Venezuelan president had been preparing to flee until allies in the Russian government persuaded him to stay. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Wednesday that Pompeo’s claim wasn’t true.

The confusion was a prelude to marches that already had been scheduled for Wednesday, and Maduro called on his own faithful to turn out. He took digs at the U.S. on Twitter, praising Venezuelans celebrating May Day “with a great gathering which will say NO to the coup and yankee interference” and reviling “the empire and its lackeys.”

Afraid to Touch Guaido, Maduro Plays Waiting Game in Caracas

Guaido had asked his supporters to demonstrate at 14 different points across Caracas. The crowds paled in comparison with the mega rallies earlier this year. Hundreds of national guardsmen blocked highways and major arteries.

In the working-class neighborhood of El Paraiso, security forces shot tear gas at about 150 protesters. They scattered behind trees and coughed on the clouds of burning gas, returning when soldiers left, banging pots and pans and blowing whistles. The government forces were rougher and more aggressive than just hours before.

Crowds were larger on Caracas’s wealthier east side, the traditional staging ground for anti-government unrest. Thousands took to many of the same streets where protesters and soldiers squared off hours before. Small groups of masked demonstrators again poured onto the city’s main highway to hurl stones at La Carlota, which saw some of Tuesday’s fiercest skirmishes.

Guaido addressed several hundred supporters outside a shopping center in the El Marques section. He said the opposition’s biggest actions were yet to come and called on public workers to strike Thursday.

“The regime thinks we’ve reached our peak pressure. They’re mistaken,” Guaido said. “Every day from now on, we will have protests until we reach freedom.”

Afraid to Touch Guaido, Maduro Plays Waiting Game in Caracas

For years, resisting Maduro has come with great risk. In fact, one reason Guaido became the head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly in January was because so many other politicians had been exiled or arrested.

His mentor and chief adviser in this year’s anti-Maduro campaign, Leopoldo Lopez, was sentenced to almost 14 years in military prison after he spearheaded major unrest in 2014. Once he was transferred to house arrest in 2017, intelligence police made regular patrols.

But on Tuesday morning, Lopez was out, making a dramatic appearance beside Guaido at a rally. Lopez -- who said his captors had freed him -- was on the streets throughout the day. By dusk, though, he had taken refuge in the Spanish embassy. On Wednesday, he was largely unseen, if at all.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.