Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido said Thursday elite security forces went to his home to threaten his family, blaming the government of Nicolas Maduro as international support grew for his bid to oust the embattled president.
The move heightened fears for the security of the 35-year-old National Assembly leader, who declared himself acting president last week in a bold challenge to Mr Maduro’s authority.
The police’s special action force, FAES, had gone to his home to interview his wife Fabiana Rosales, Mr Guaido said during a speech at Caracas university.
“At this moment the dictatorship believes that it will intimidate us,” he said, his wife at his side.
Earlier, European lawmakers recognised Mr Guaido as the acting head of state — another step forward in his bid to force out the socialist leader who has presided over the oil-rich country’s economic collapse.
Several opposition leaders have been jailed in recent years as Mr Maduro cracked down on growing dissent in the Latin American country, where resistance has escalated with Mr Guaido’s spectacular self-proclamation.
Previously unknown to the public at large, he has become the standard bearer of the opposition to Mr Maduro, whether on the streets or on social networks.
Deprived almost entirely of coverage on mainstream media, Mr Guaido has deftly used the social networks to woo support, but even that avenue is increasingly being cut off, and there is an explicit ban against talking about him.
The dramatic turn against Mr Maduro’s leftist regime culminated quickly, but it came after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy including a hushed meeting in Washington with Mr Guaido, who was quickly recognized by Washington as Venezuela’s president.
Henrique Capriles, 46, a former presidential candidate and an opposition leader in recent years, said the opposition was unaware Mr Guaido would declare himself the country’s leader on January 23.
“That surprised a lot of political figures (but) I don’t say that as a criticism,” Mr Capriles said.
While marshaling international support, Mr Guaido is seeking to maintain street pressure against Mr Maduro, and has called more mass protests for Saturday.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court — dominated by regime loyalists — has frozen his assets and ordered him not to leave the country.
On Thursday, lawmakers at the Brussels-based European Parliament voted to accept Mr Guaido as “legitimate interim president of the country” — and urged the European Union to follow suit.
Four major European powers — Britain, France, Germany and Spain — have said they would do so if Mr Maduro fails to call presidential elections by the weekend.
The US on Thursday urged all European countries to recognise Mr Guaido, but Mr Maduro has told the “imperialists” to wait until 2025 for new elections.
Mr Guaido was at the main Caracas university to present his “rescue plan” for a country in economic meltdown.
“We are going to address the humanitarian emergency, stop inflation in its tracks, reactivate the oil industry and move towards the restoration of access to public goods and services,” he said to cheers.
Part of the plan unveiled by the opposition leader and his economic advisor Jose Guerra is to end exchange controls in force since 2003 and renegotiate Venezuela’s estimated $150 billion debt.
With his wife at his side on the podium, Mr Guaido said he had a 20-month old daughter at home and would be holding FAES accountable for “whatever they do to my baby.”
He told officials: “Do not cross the red line.”
But the National Police tweeted it is “totally false” that there had been any search of Mr Guaido’s family.
US Vice President Mike Pence said on Twitter that “the world is watching – and we will not tolerate harm to those who are fighting for freedom and democracy in Venezuela.”
The United States, which immediately recognised Guaido’s self-proclamation, along with a dozen Latin American countries, Canada and Australia, has warned Mr Maduro of “serious consequences” if he targets opponents.
The two sides have held competing rallies in the streets.
On Thursday workers from Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA — hit by new US sanctions this week — held an “anti-imperialist” march in support of Maduro.
“Yankee go home,” said one of their signs.
A day earlier, thousands led by Guaido protested in various cities, banging pots, blowing whistles and horns, and carrying banners that read: “Armed forces, regain your dignity” and “Maduro usurper.”
Mr Guaido wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Wednesday that “clandestine meetings” had been held with members of the armed forces and security forces, who he is trying to woo with an amnesty offer.
But Mr Guaido’s moves to court the military are fraught with risk. Last week fewer than 30 soldiers rose up against Mr Maduro, precipitating protests that, according to the United Nations, ended with more than 40 dead and hundreds detained.
So far, the military high command has remained loyal to Mr Maduro.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton on Thursday said Mr Maduro should accept Mr Guaido’s amnesty officer.
The last 10 days of political upheaval have exacerbated the general disarray in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves but has suffered hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities.
The UN says 2.3 million have fled the country, unleashing a migration crisis in South America.