Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader once recognised by the west as Venezuela’s legitimate president, arrived in the US on Tuesday, strengthening the hand of authoritarian president Nicolás Maduro amid stalled political negotiations.
Guaidó, the most prominent member of Venezuela’s opposition, said on social media ahead of his departure that his family had been threatened. “Until we achieve free elections in Venezuela, we will continue fighting,” he said in a video posted on Twitter.
The opposition leader previously warned that his arrest was imminent. Guaidó is the subject of 27 investigations in Venezuela, according to Tarek William Saab, Venezuela’s attorney-general.
Guaidó was the figurehead of an effort to unseat Maduro, receiving recognition as Venezuela’s legitimate president from the US and dozens of other countries in early 2019. That coalition alleged that Maduro rigged the presidential election he won in 2018, rendering Guaidó, then president of the national assembly, as the constitutionally authorised leader.
But the gambit failed, and sweeping sanctions did nothing to dislodge Maduro, who has now been in power for a decade. The “interim government” led by Guaidó was dissolved in January.
Venezuela has long been racked by crisis despite boasting the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Mismanagement, corruption and sanctions have throttled the country’s economy.
While a relaxation of currency controls had stemmed inflation and improved living standards for some over the past two years, prices are again climbing at an annual estimated annual rate of 350 per cent. Seven million Venezuelans have fled the country, with 2.5mn in neighbouring Colombia.
Guaidó unexpectedly arrived in Colombia on Monday, the day before a summit in Bogotá to promote the resumption of stalled negotiations between Maduro’s government and the opposition. The two sides have not met in Mexico, where talks have been taking place, since November, when they reached a deal on humanitarian aid under which the US eased oil sanctions.
Maduro has said that he will not send his delegation to Mexico until Venezuelan assets frozen abroad are released and sanctions are lifted. The opposition has accused him of playing for time.
Guaidó’s surprise presence in Colombia caused a headache for its government. Foreign minister Alvaro Leyva said that the opposition leader had entered the country “inappropriately.” Late on Monday night, accompanied by migration authorities, Guaidó boarded a flight to Miami and became the latest in a long line of opposition leaders in exile.
The US assisted Guaidó in his trip from Colombia to Miami, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, in Bogotá for the summit, said on Tuesday. “He said and he believes that he was under threat,” Finer said.
María Elvira Salazar, a Republican representing a district in Florida in the House of Representatives, welcomed Guaidó to the US, on social media. She said she would ask the White House to grant him political asylum.
Democratic senator Dick Durban, chair of the Senate judiciary committee, tweeted on Tuesday that Guaidó “made a patriotic and heroic effort to bring democracy to the failed criminal state of Venezuela”, and criticised the Colombian government for the cold reception it had given Guaidó.