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‘Conflict or submission’ in Venezuela power struggle

Grinning from cheek to cheek and standing on a stage in front of tens of thousands of supporters, Juan Guaido reached into a pocket and brandished his Venezuelan passport with a flourish.

“You were worried about my passport? Here is my passport, it’s safe!” he said, as the crowd roared their approval.

A couple of hours earlier he had walked through passport control at Simon Bolivar airport like any other traveller arriving on a commercial flight to the capital Caracas, he emerged to screams of delight from supporters in the arrival hall.

The question asked by many here is simple – why wasn’t he arrested?

In fact why hasn’t he been arrested since declaring himself interim president in January?

At the airport a number of European diplomats and the United States Charge d’affairs had come to “observe” Guaido’s return.

When asked what they were “observing” one confirmed they were there to ensure that the “constitutional requirements” around Guaido were not broken.

Basically, as speaker of the national assembly here, Juan Guaido is immune from prosecution unless a whole set of supreme court hearings and decisions are passed removing his immunity.

It’s rumoured here, and trust me there are many rumours, that the supreme court couldn’t actually get enough judges to a meeting to have a quorum to pass the issuing of an arrest warrant for Guaido.

True or not, there doesn’t appear to be an arrest warrant anyone knows about and, even if there was, the diplomats were there to witness the arrest and would report immediately to their respective governments.

The United States has already warned of a “significant response” to any detention of Guaido.

But regardless of arrest warrants or anything else it is worth remembering that he had left the country in secret despite a court ruling forbidding foreign travel.

He had flown around South American countries drumming up more support from international leaders and he continues to call for the removal of Nicolas Maduro and the collective mutiny of the security services here.

In Venezuela that gets you banged up for sure.

But he wasn’t.

The immigration authorities did nothing and stamped his passport, local police officers were seen clapping Guaido’s arrival and the feared national guard, one of Maduro’s three hardline enforcing forces, didn’t intervene at all.

Is this significant?

Well it could be a sign that the authority of the government is diminishing, the growing popularity of Guaido is persuading law officers to just leave it to someone else to take the flak or that the security apparatus is slowly rupturing.

Certainly more military personnel on the border with Colombia have deserted.

Around 600 have crossed over so far.

Guaido is definitely very popular and that is growing: a recent poll here showed he would win 70% of votes if free elections were held.

So it could be all of the above.

A political adviser and doctor of political sciences here agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity to explain the opposition’s own analysis of what is going on.

In essence there are two points of view.

First, the most optimistic, is that there is what they call a “progressive breakdown” in the government.

The international pressure and, much more importantly, US-targeted sanctions, are slowly but surely crippling the Maduro regime hierarchy.

“We don’t know all the judges, the generals, the ministers and what they get up to, but the United States does,” she told me.

“The sanctions will be hitting them hard because the US knows where the money is, who they deal with, who they are related to. They can make life very difficult,” she added.

Certainly the United States favours sanctions and it’s a tried and tested weapon around the world.

But attempting to undermine the foundations of a system in the belief that the whole system will fall down either takes a long time or won’t work.

The second, and considerably less optimistic, view is that the government IS feeling pressure from the international community and is attempting to avoid a major confrontation by arresting Guaido and locking him up, but that is because they don’t actually fear him at all.

He is a nuisance and the rallies are annoying but nothing has changed.

“It could be a sign of weakness but it probably isn’t,” the adviser continued.

“The government knows its resources and its strengths and they know how to use it to stay in power.

“Chavez was a master at it. There were always problems but he dealt with them. These people know what they are doing,” she said.

While much of the international community is supporting Juan Guaido, Russia and China are not.

They are supporting Maduro, and even if they don’t give him all the money he would like, they are extending a credit line that can easily keep him operating for now.

Their advisers, I would suspect, are telling him to weather the storm.

It has worked in Syria if one needs an example.

So how does this move on?

At the current rate it is stalemate.

More rallies, thousands on the street – so what?

With the military on board Maduro is safe.

Some of the opposition believe that the demonstrations must target military institutions and must inevitably turn violent; basically they are arguing there is no revolution without blood.

I don’t think the opposition is there yet.

But as a senior member put it to me: “It’s conflict or submission.”

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