The president of the opposition-controlled but sidelined National Assembly was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents for around an hour Sunday, but President Nicolas Maduro's government denied any knowledge of the operation. "We have learned that there was a situation in which a group of officials acting in a unilateral manner conducted an irregular procedure," said Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez. He added that officers from the SEBIN intelligence service "are being dismissed and subjected to a stricter disciplinary procedure" after having provoked a "media circus."
Following his release, Juan Guaido was met by hundreds of cheering supporters at the political rally he had been heading to when he was intercepted on a highway by armed and hooded men in two Venezuelan intelligence service vehicles, according to his wife. "So Maduro no longer controls the armed forces because the chain of command was broken," Guaido said. "Who is commanding the regime now? If they're already admitting that they don't control the state's security agencies, there's a serious problem at Miraflores," he added, referring to the presidential palace.
Guaido had directly challenged the legitimacy of Maduro as the president was sworn in for a second term on Thursday, calling the next day for a transitional government ahead of new elections. He was detained while travelling to the political meeting in Caraballeda, 40 kilometres from the capital, Caracas. "They forced us to get out. They did not hit him (Guaido), but they told us they had to proceed with his immediate arrest," his wife Fabiana Rosales said in a telephone call made public by a member of the assembly, Larissa Gonzalez. After Guaido's release, Rosales in a Twitter post thanked "everyone that reacted immediately with support against the dictatorship's abuses against my husband." "The dictatorship cannot break his fighting spirit," she added. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the "arbitrary" detention.
"We call on security forces to uphold the constitution and rights of the Venezuelan people. The U.S. and world are watching," he wrote on Twitter. Once he reached Caraballeda, Guaido was met by cheering crowds. "Brothers and sisters, I'm here!" he said before directing a message at Maduro. "The game is changing. The people are in the street. The symbols of pressure, resistance and strength are here. "If they want to send a message so that we go into hiding, here is the people's response: We are here!" On Friday, the 35-year-old Guaido had said that the Venezuelan constitution gave him the authority to assume power as part of a government of transition after branding Maduro a "usurper."
He also called on Venezuelans to rally January 23 for a transitional government, a significant date as it was then in 1958 that the military dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez fell. Maduro was re-elected in May in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition, whose best known leaders were barred from running, under house arrest or in exile. The outcome was widely criticized as marred by fraud and voter intimidation, with the United States, European Union and Organization of American States refusing to recognize it. Maduro, though, crucially retains the support of the military high command, which reiterated its "loyalty" to him on both Wednesday and Thursday. Guaido knows full well that the assembly is powerless to act without the military's help.
"Is it enough to lean on the constitution in a dictatorship? No. It needs to be the people, the military and the international community that lead us to take over," he said on Friday. As part of his call for the military to sever ties with Maduro, Guaido announced that the legislature would pass an amnesty law for military members imprisoned on conspiracy charges. Maduro is widely blamed for the country's economic crisis, with basic food and medicine scarce and hyperinflation estimated to reach 10 million per cent in 2019, according to the International Monetary Fund.
(With inputs from agencies.)