Written by Anatoly Kurmanaev
Venezuela’s intelligence police on Thursday detained the chief of staff of the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, the most significant attack on the opposition camp since Guaidó declared himself the country’s interim president two months ago.
The United States, a fierce ally of Guaidó, condemned the arrest and vowed a forceful response. And Guaidó said the detention would only redouble his efforts to force President Nicolás Maduro to cede power. “We’re not afraid,” Guaidó told reporters, surrounded by other opposition leaders. “The only possible escalation here that I can be certain of is to increase street pressure” to oust Maduro.
Since late January, the Venezuelan opposition has been locked in a standoff with Maduro that has left the destitute country in the uneasy position of having rival claimants to the country’s leadership. Roughly 50 nations have recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim leader, even as Maduro has appeared intent on trying to ride out the crisis and keep his hold on power.
The political crisis escalated significantly Thursday when the chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, a lawyer and confidant of Guaidó, was taken from his apartment in southern Caracas around dawn to an unknown destination by armed intelligence officers, said Sergio Vergara, an opposition lawmaker who is a friend and neighbor of Marrero’s.
By detaining Marrero, Maduro was trying to gauge how far the international community is prepared to go to defend Guaidó, Hugo Carvajal, a former Venezuelan military intelligence chief who defected this year, said on Twitter.
Michael McCarthy, an international affairs professor at George Washington University in Washington, called it brinkmanship: “the closest you can get to provoking without going after Guaidó himself.”
Maduro may sense that the United States has few arrows left in its quiver. U.S. officials have imposed sanctions on most of Maduro’s inner circle, his top generals and the main state companies. And a U.S. ban on Venezuelan oil and gold exports, as well as bond trading, has in practice cut the country off from the international trade and financial system.
This leaves the Trump administration with limited punitive options short of a military intervention, something his top officials have said is not being planned. “Maduro is essentially calling Trump’s bluff,” said Phil Gunson, a Venezuela analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “Maduro has essentially concluded that the military option is a very remote possibility. If he doesn’t see a meaningful response, he would be tempted to take the next step and jail Mr. Guaidó himself.”
President Donald Trump has repeatedly said that all options, including military operations, are on the table to force the exit of Maduro, who was re-elected last year in a widely disputed election. The Trump administration has maintained that any repressive measures against Guaidó or his inner circle will be punished.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday on Twitter that the United States “will hold accountable those involved” in Marrero’s arrest. The national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said on Twitter that the arrest “would not go unanswered.”
Other nations, including Canada and Britain, also condemned the detention. The office of Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for human rights, called on Maduro to respect due process and reveal Marrero’s location.
On Wednesday, Bachelet, a former center-left president of Chile with a previously neutral position on Venezuela, accused Maduro’s government of human rights violations and the arming of paramilitaries.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who advises Trump on Venezuela policy, said last month in Colombia that “there are certain lines, and Maduro knows what they are.”
“The consequences will be severe, and they will be swift,” Rubio added.
Guaidó has enjoyed an unusual freedom of movement since directly challenging Maduro’s increasingly embattled government and wresting control of Venezuelan state assets, bank accounts and properties abroad. Guaidó was detained on a highway in Caracas in January but was almost immediately released, with one Maduro administration official calling the arrest an “irregular procedure” by rogue agents.
This month, after a tour of South America to rally support from regional allies, Guaidó returned to Venezuela and was met by jubilant crowds. He entered the country unimpeded despite having defied a court-imposed order not to leave Venezuela.
In the past, Maduro’s government has quashed challenges to his rule by jailing opposition leaders, forcing them to flee the country or disqualifying them from elections.
Vergara, the opposition lawmaker, said Marrero told him as he was led away that the police had planted two rifles and a grenade in his house as a pretext to charge him with terrorism. Vergara, a member of Guaidó’s party, said armed intelligence officers had also broken into and searched his own apartment.
Néstor Reverol, Venezuela’s interior minister, claimed on national television that Marrero had been “caught with war weapons” and was part of a terrorist cell.
Maduro, in detaining Marrero, is trying to undermine Guaidó while raising the government’s bargaining power in any future negotiations over a transfer of power, said Luis Salamanca, a political scientist at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas.
“The government feels cornered, and they are responding with the only way they know: with repression,” Salamanca said. “They are trying to stay in power, but at the same time they are preparing escape routes if their ability to govern deteriorates further.”
McCarthy, the George Washington University professor, said that while Marrero’s detention was unlikely to prompt a U.S. military mobilization, it could help the Trump administration gather domestic support for any future escalation in Venezuela.
“The more they can prove that this is not just a despotic but also an erratic regime, the easier it will be for them to justify that diplomatic options have been exhausted,” he said.