- The Washington Times - Monday, March 4, 2019

With thousands of supporters gathered in the streets of Venezuela, Juan Guaido defied government threats and returned home Monday, in a spectacle that analysts say could mark a major turning point in the global push to install the young opposition leader as his country’s rightful president and oust incumbent socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power.

Mr. Guaido, who could face arrest or even worse at the hands of the regime, told demonstrators that they must “continue mobilizing” until Mr. Maduro steps down. At the same time, the Trump administration again tried to put its finger on the scale by threatening retaliation if Mr. Maduro or anyone in his government harms Mr. Guaido and his family, or mounts a violent crackdown on protesters.

The tough talk from the U.S. and dozens of other nations — all of which have recognized Mr. Guaido, not Mr. Maduro, as Venezuela’s president — served as the backdrop for Mr. Guaido’s defiant return to the country Monday. Over the past week, he had ignored a travel ban imposed by the Maduro government and traveled to Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and elsewhere across the continent as he rallied support behind his effort to drive Mr. Maduro from power.

After being greeted at an airport outside Caracas by top diplomats from the U.S., Germany and elsewhere, Mr. Guaido made his way into the city. He climbed atop scaffolding and brandished his passport as he addressed the throngs of supporters he had urged to gather in protest of the Maduro government.

“We know the risks that we face. That’s never stopped us,” he said. “The regime must understand, the dictatorship must understand … that we’re stronger than ever. We’ll continue protesting, we’ll continue mobilizing.” He called for more mass protests Saturday and said he would meet with top union officials on Tuesday, although the political drama was slightly muted because many Venezuelans were preparing for Carnival festivities and were less focused on the power struggle in Caracas.

Specialists say the significance of Mr. Guaido’s return cannot be overstated, especially as the Maduro government has resisted in recent weeks in the face of growing economic and political pressure from Washington and states across Latin America. It’s the latest, they say, in a string of key moments that are undermining Mr. Maduro’s authority and opening the system up to democratic reform.

“When Juan Guaido was sworn in as the interim president, that was a turning point,” said Stephen Johnson, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute.

“And then today, something some observers thought would never happen — Juan Guaido got back to Venezuela,” he continued. “It’ll be the crowds on the ground greeting Guaido that could really turn up the heat. … I think the expectation is growing more and more that with events like these, things will begin to change. The crowds expect that.”

Just as Mr. Guaido arrives back in Venezuela, the U.S. and its allies issued strong warnings to Mr. Maduro to ensure the opposition leader wasn’t arrested or assaulted by government forces. Florida Republican Rep. Ted Yoho, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said it was “very bold and very courageous” for Mr. Guaido to return home.

“The biggest thing is show support behind [Mr. Guaido], that we support what he’s doing,” Mr. Yoho said. “He has the country of Venezuela on his side if he does wind up taking over.”

Colombian President Ivan Duque, who hosted a summit for Mr. Guaido to meet with Mr. Pence and other regional leaders during his trip abroad, said that Venezuela has started down an “irreversible path” toward democracy, while Spanish Ambassador Jesus Silva Fernandez called on Mr. Maduro not to crack down on Mr. Guaido or his supporters.

The government in Caracas still enjoys the backing of Russia and a handful of other nations, and to date the country’s military has largely resisted the opposition’s calls to abandon Mr. Maduro.

There was genuine uncertainty Monday over whether Mr. Guaido would be allowed back into Venezuela and whether he would be arrested upon his return. While such a move would carry consequences given the international spotlight now shining on the situation, Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez insisted in a recent interview that Mr. Guaido is guilty of illegal acts.

Mr. Guaido is “a Venezuelan who conspires with foreign governments to overthrow a constitutional government,” she told Russian news outlet RT.

Despite those comments, analysts believe the Maduro regime is unlikely to arrest or assassinate Mr. Guaido given the likelihood the U.S. would respond with harsh economic sanctions or other punishments.

Maduro knows the eyes of the world are upon him,” Mr. Johnson said.

Staff writer Lauren Meier contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire-service reports.

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