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What a major arrest in Venezuela says about the Guaidó-Maduro standoff

The arrest of Edgar Zambrano shows that Maduro and his loyalists may feel more emboldened.

Edgar Zambrano alongside interim President Juan Guaidó on January 22, 2019.
Edgar Zambrano alongside interim President Juan Guaidó on January 22, 2019.
Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government arrested a top opposition leader on Wednesday night — by towing his car with him inside.

National Assembly Vice President Edgar Zambrano entered his car after leaving his political party’s headquarters in Caracas when a unit from Venezuela’s intelligence agency, known as the SEBIN, surrounded the vehicle. Zambrano refused to leave the car and even tweeted about the incident from inside. After a half-hour standoff, the SEBIN simply towed his car away while he remained in it.

According to the Associated Press, people who witnessed the incident shouted “assassins!” at the armed intelligence agents, who are loyal to the Maduro government. Zambrano tweeted, “Democrats will keep fighting!” as he was being whisked away to prison.

But the absurdity of the situation belies how serious this moment really was: Zambrano is arguably the most high-profile opposition figure that has been arrested so far in the months-long standoff between Maduro and Juan Guaidó, the US-backed politician who aims to oust him.

“This is a reassertion of hardliners in the Maduro government,” David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America human rights group, told me. He noted that hardliners, like those in the SEBIN, tend to crack down on opposition figures when there’s a major effort to undermine their power.

It’s therefore possible that arresting Zambrano was in response to a European Union-backed group’s Tuesday statement that it would send political advisers to deal with the ongoing crisis.

In January, Guaidó declared himself the country’s rightful president. He argued that Maduro, who has been in power for six years, rigged the election last May that kept him in charge — and that as a result, Guaidó, as the head of the National Assembly, is now the rightful interim president of the country according to the Venezuelan constitution.

While Guaidó has the support of more than 50 countries, his effort to remove Maduro hasn’t gone well so far.

Last week, Guaidó launched his boldest — and riskiest — gambit yet: releasing a video calling on the entire country, including the military, to rise up and overthrow Maduro once and for all.

But it didn’t work: Few troops defected to join Guaidó’s side, so he was unable to forcibly topple Maduro. Guaidó, however, was successful in mobilizing thousands out into the streets, leading to clashes that killed at least four people and injured dozens more.

Now Maduro is striking back with Zambrano’s arrest, the first since last week’s uprising. Maduro’s regime claims the opposition lawmaker was involved with Guaidó’s effort and is one of 10 officials the government has charged with treason.

Diosdado Cabello, a top pro-Maduro politician, celebrated that “one of the principal conspirators of the coup” was detained and added that “they will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted.” Maduro, meanwhile, was live on state-run television to inaugurate an agricultural project during the arrest.

Put together, it’s increasingly clear Maduro will employ strongman tactics to stay in control, and it doesn’t look like Guaidó’s side can stop him.

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