By Fabiola Sanchez and Joshua Goodman, Associated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The new head of Venezuela’s increasingly defiant congress was pulled from his vehicle and briefly detained by police Sunday, a day after the U.S. backed him assuming the presidency as a way out of the country’s deepening crisis.
The confusing incident is bound to ramp up tensions between the opposition and government following President Nicolás Maduro’s swearing in for a controversial second term this month.
A video circulating on social media purports to show the moment in which Juan Guaidó is intercepted on his way to an anti-government “Citizens’ Meeting” in the port city of La Guaira.
In the video shot on a cellphone by a motorist stuck in traffic, several men in ski masks and carrying assault weapons are seen struggling to shut the door on someone being pushed into an SUV before racing down a highway.
— GISELA MATAMOROS (@GiselaMatamoros) January 13, 2019
While it was not possible to identify Guaidó in the 33-second video, his wife said on Twitter that he had been detained by a commando unit of the feared SEBIN intelligence police. As news of his detention spread, he was then released.
“I thank everyone for the quick response in the face of abuse against my husband by the dictatorship,” Fabiana Rosales said in a message posted on Twitter. “The dictatorship will not be able to bend his fighting spirit.”
Agradezco a todos la inmediata reacción de apoyo ante el atropello de la dictadura contra mi esposo @JGuaido. Estoy ya con él. La dictadura no podrá doblegar su espíritu de lucha. Vamos rumbo al Cabildo Abierto.
— Fabiana Rosales (@FabiiRosales) January 13, 2019
Adding to the confusion, the government tried to shift the blame to Guaidó’s allies, with Communications Minister Jorge Rodríguez saying that the “media show” had perhaps been orchestrated to provoke an international uproar.
Still, he acknowledged that police officers had partook in the arrest and said they would be disciplined.
“We want to inform the people of Venezuela that the officials who took that upon themselves are being dismissed,” Rodríguez said on state TV.
At the rally Sunday after the incident, Guaidó told The Associated Press that the SEBIN agents informed him they were carrying out orders from above when they arrested him.
“We are survivors,” he told the crowd of a few hundred waving Venezuelan flags.
Guaidó has been leading an increasingly tense standoff with Maduro seeking to oust the socialist from power, winning the support of some powerful international allies like U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who spoke to him by phone shortly after the 35-year-old assumed the presidency of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
At a rally Friday he said he was prepared to take over as Venezuela’s interim president and call for new elections, a move the U.S. and regional governments support.
But for such a strategy to succeed, he said Venezuelans must take to the streets to express their discontent with Maduro’s wrecking of what was once Latin America’s wealthiest nation. To that end, he called for nationwide demonstrations January 23 to coincide with the anniversary of the 1958 ousting of military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez.
Goodman reported from Bogotá, Colombia.