Venezuela issues arrest warrant against opposition leader Juan Guaidó

CARACAS, Venezuela — The government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has issued an arrest warrant against opposition leader Juan Guaidó, and said it asked for an Interpol red alert, accusing the politician of using state oil money for his own benefit.

Guaidó, who was once recognized by the United States and more than 50 other countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader, escaped to Miami this year, fleeing what he said were threats of his arrest. He is living in the United States, where he continues to see support from some allies in Washington and Florida.

After the announcement by Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab on Thursday night, Guaidó described the allegations as false, and said they were part of a “machine of promoting lies.”

“The regime attacks again, with one of its favorite weapons, the kidnapping of justice,” Guaidó said.

In 2019, after Maduro claimed reelection in a vote widely condemned as fraudulent, Guaidó declared himself the country’s interim president. As then-president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, he was the highest-ranking government official who had been democratically elected. The Venezuelan government never arrested Guaidó as he sought to use mass protests and even a failed uprising to unseat Maduro.

But in April this year, months after Guaidó’s fellow opposition leaders voted to dissolve his so-called interim government, Guaidó said he received phone calls from two high-ranking officials in the Maduro government who warned that his arrest was imminent.

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“The fact that the regime waited to announce this, now that he’s outside the country and has lost popular support, shows that Maduro no longer views him as a threat,” said Geoff Ramsey, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council. “The government has now officially placed Guaidó in the same category as other exiled opposition politicians: effectively banned from returning but no longer relevant enough to be seen as untouchable.”

Guaidó’s interim government has long been accused by Maduro and even independent observers of mismanaging the public funds under its control, namely through the Venezuelan fertilizer company Monómeros and the Houston-based Citgo Petroleum, an oil refiner formerly controlled by the Maduro government. Saab mentioned both cases in announcing his arrest warrant.

This is not the first time that Saab’s office has sought an Interpol red alert against an opposition leader in exile. Julio Borges, a prominent name in the Venezuelan political arena, was the subject of an alert this year. Interpol does not appear to have acted on any of these alerts against opposition politicians. Interpol’s constitution explicitly forbids the police organization from “engaging in matters of political, military, religious and racial character.”

The announcement of Guaidó’s arrest warrant, though anticipated for months, comes as the Maduro government pursues talks with the Biden administration over the possibility of lifting some U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector in exchange for Maduro’s promise to hold free and fair presidential elections next year.

It also comes days before Venezuela’s opposition is set to hold a primary vote to choose a candidate to run against Maduro in potential elections in 2024. Guaidó, who saw his popularity and relevance plummet at home, is not running in the primaries. The Maduro government has disqualified the front-runner in the primaries, Maria Corina Machado, from running in a presidential election, a move strongly condemned by U.S. officials.

Saab said he requested Guaidó’s arrest warrant for several alleged crimes, including treason, usurping of functions and profiting from public money. The attorney general accused Guaidó of using money from the country’s state-owned oil company for his own financial benefit, including paying his legal expenses. He claimed that the decisions of Guaidó’s interim government led the country to lose $19 billion.

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The interim government’s moves with Citgo “undermined its legal autonomy and made it into an alter ego of the Venezuelan state, thereby exposing it to creditors,” said David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University.

This year, a federal appeals court in Delaware confirmed that criticism, Smilde said. The court suggested the interim government used funds from the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., to finance its own debts.

Legal representatives of the interim government are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Smilde said it is unlikely the case will be taken up.

The interim government took control of Monómeros, a Venezuelan fertilizer company in Colombia, in 2019, soon after Guaidó declared himself interim president. Maduro’s government accuses Guaidó and his allies of working against the nation’s interests and using the company for the interim government’s own profit.

Some of Guaidó’s own fellow opposition leaders have made similar allegations. Borges wrote in a recent book that there existed an alliance “between some private factors and opposition factors to bring the company to such a level of non-viability that there would be no other option but to give it to third parties.”

Smilde said the arrest order through Interpol is merely symbolic, and has little chance of affecting Guaidó while he is living in the United States.

“But it is a way for the Maduro government to underline how the actions of the [interim government] have hurt Venezuelan patrimony at a time of economic crisis,” Smilde said. “It is also a way for them to deflect blame for their own economic shortcomings.”

Guaidó and his interim government could “dispel doubts” by offering the public a transparent accounting of their accounts, Smilde said, “perhaps even calling for an independent investigation of their administration.”

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