CARACAS – Acting President of Venezuela Juan Guaido told a press conference on Thursday intelligence agents had detained his chief of staff during a pre-dawn raid, a move by President Nicolas Maduro that the Trump administration said would “not go unanswered.”
Acting President Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. He has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other Western nations as the country’s legitimate leader.
Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation’s economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should “face justice,” but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.
Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Maduro not to touch Guaido and his inner circle, but it is unclear what more they can do.
They have threatened ever harsher sanctions intended to further isolate Maduro and cut off his administration’s sources of revenue, but the humanitarian and political costs of further blanket measures could be high. Millions of Venezuelans are already suffering shortages of food and medicine.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for the immediate release of Roberto Marrero. “The toughest sanctions are yet to come,” he said. “Unless Maduro’s usurpation ends, he and his cronies will be strangled financially.”
The United States imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA in January, preventing U.S. companies from dealing with it unless revenues went to a fund available to Guaido, but has not yet slapped sanctions on companies from other countries that do business with PDVSA, a practice known as “secondary sanctions.”
Acting President Juan Guaido said the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and another opposition legislator, Sergio Vergara, showed Maduro’s “weakness” and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.
“As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings,” Guaido told a news conference.
Marrero recorded a voice message as SEBIN agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas’ upscale Las Mercedes neighborhood, which Guaido’s press team forwarded to reporters.
“I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don’t stop and look after (Guaido),” Marrero said.
Vergara, Marrero’s neighbor, said some 40 armed SEBIN agents forced their way into their homes and spent three hours inside. The SEBIN left with Marrero and Vergara’s driver, the legislator said in a video posted on his Twitter account.
Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“HELD TO ACCOUNT”
Since January, Venezuelan authorities have arrested over 1,000 people in connection with anti-government demonstrations, most of them arbitrarily, rights groups say.
United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, had quashed peaceful protests with an excessive use of force, killings and torture.
On Thursday, the UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero’s detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero’s arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.
Two U.S. senators on Thursday also pressed Maduro to release six executives from Houston-based oil company Citgo Petroleum – a PDVSA subsidiary – who have been jailed in Venezuela since 2017.
Maduro has said his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country’s situation.
Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping 2 million percent, which has fueled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than 3 million citizens since 2015.
While Trump has said all options remain open, there appears to be little support in Washington or regional Latin American capitals for any military intervention.
Guaido traveled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court. He later entered the country without being detained.
Venezuela’s chief state prosecutor, Tarek Saab, last week asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Guaido for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the country’s electrical network, after the longest nationwide power blackout in decades.
The opposition, along with electrical experts, said the power outage was due to the government’s incompetence and years without maintenance.
By Vivian Sequera