Venezuela government targets Guaidó with probe, travel ban, asset freeze

Venezuelan opposition protesters participate in a demonstration to demand the end of the crisis and in support of the interim presidency of Juan Guaido, in Caracas, Venezuela, 30 January 2019. [EPA-EFE/Cristian Hernández]

Venezuela’s government struck back at self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó with the Supreme Court imposing a travel ban and freeze on his bank accounts despite a warning from Washington of “serious consequences” if it did so.

The court also said prosecutors could investigate Guaidó, in apparent retaliation for sweeping US sanctions on oil firm PDVSA, announced on Monday. The sanctions mean the state-run company may not be able to fulfill contracts with North American buyers, the government of President Nicolás Maduro said.

Aimed at driving Maduro from power, the sanctions were the strongest measures yet against the 56-year-old former union leader, who has overseen economic collapse and an exodus of millions of Venezuelans in recent years.

The measures triggered higher global oil prices, angry responses from China and Russia and the first serious moves against Guaidó since he challenged Maduro’s claim on the presidency last week.

Venezuela's Guaidó calls for new anti-Maduro protests

Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president Juan Guaidó called Sunday (27 January) for two new protests, in an effort to push the military to turn against leader Nicolás Maduro and back a European ultimatum demanding free elections within the week.

The Supreme Court approved a request from Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek Saab to open a preliminary investigation into Guaidó based on accusations he helped foreign countries to interfere in internal matters. The court also imposed a travel ban on the 35-year-old leader and froze his bank accounts.

As a lawmaker who heads the National Assembly, Guaidó has immunity from prosecution unless ordered by a top court. But the 32-member Supreme Court is loyal to Maduro and moved quickly to open the investigation.

In response to news earlier of the attorney general’s plan, US national security adviser John Bolton warned of “serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaidó,” in a tweet that described Saab as the “illegitimate former Venezuelan Attorney General.”

The United States and several other countries have recognised Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state and denounced Maduro as a usurper. Maduro, sworn in on 10 January for a second term after disputed elections last year, accuses Guaidó of staging a US-directed coup against him. Maduro is backed by a number of countries, including Russia.

Maduro’s inauguration sparked protests throughout Venezuela. Over 40 people are believed to have been killed in political violence last week, including 26 shot by pro-government forces, five killed in house raids and 11 during looting, U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville said on Tuesday.

He said more than 850 people were detained between 21 January and 26 January, including 77 children, some as young as 12.

Guaidó said on Tuesday he did not underestimate the threat of imprisonment but did not believe it was “anything new.” Many opposition leaders have been imprisoned in the South American nation.

Venezuelan authorities also detained three foreign journalists and a driver working for the Spanish news agency EFE on Wednesday (30 January), the company said, in the latest arrests of reporters covering US-backed efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

“We are here. We will keep acting and working to confront the humanitarian crisis,” Guaidó told a news conference.

Russia, Turkey back Venezuela's Maduro, while West turns up heat

Russia accused the United States on Thursday (24 January) of trying to usurp power in Venezuela and warned against military intervention, putting it at odds with Washington and the EU which backed protests against one of Moscow’s closest allies.

Most experts believe the sanctions and other measures against Maduro will encourage him to step down only if he loses the support of the powerful military, which until now has been mostly loyal to the leftist ruling party founded by late President Hugo Chavez.

Maduro appeared on a television broadcast from a military base on Tuesday, praising the soldiers’ loyalty.

The US State Department said on Tuesday it had certified Guaidó’s authority to control certain assets held by US-insured banks, including government and central bank accounts.

US military invention is seen in Washington as highly unlikely, but President Trump has repeatedly said “all options are on the table” and notes Bolton held at a Monday briefing containing the words “5,000 troops to Colombia” have raised questions.

Sidestepping sanctions

In Geneva, senior US and Venezuelan diplomats traded jibes at a disarmament conference. Venezuela’s ambassador, Jorge Valero, said the Trump administration was preparing a “military invasion” and questioned whether Washington had the moral authority to “impose a diktat” on Caracas.

Venezuela has sunk into economic and political turmoil under Maduro’s socialist government, with inflation seen rising to 10 million percent this year.

The loss of revenue from the United States, the No. 1 buyer of Venezuelan crude, is sure to further hamper the government’s ability to import basic goods like food and medicine, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that has prompted more than 3 million people to leave the country in recent years.

France said on Wednesday that Maduro appeared not to be heeding calls for new presidential elections and that European foreign ministers would discuss next steps at a meeting in Bucharest on Thursday.

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