CARACAS, Venezuela – The arrest of a top opposition leader in Venezuela unleashed fears of a wider crackdown on Thursday, even as members of the opposition issued renewed calls for weekend protests in their campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
The Wednesday arrest of Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in Venezuela, was the latest move in a protracted, increasingly murky struggle between two camps vying for support of the military, which has seen some defections but whose loyalty to Maduro has preserved his grip on power.
Maduro’s chief adversary, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, portrayed the arrest and targeting of members of the assembly as acts of desperation by a government whose leaders don’t know who to trust.
The U.S.-backed opposition leader also announced new nationwide protests on Saturday, following clashes between police and protesters last week that left six people dead.
“They won’t get us out of the streets,” said Guaidó, whose public appearance in Caracas reflected his belief that Maduro does not have the confidence to arrest him.
Maduro has appeared to let Guaidó wage a campaign against him following U.S. warnings that there would be severe repercussions if he took action against his foe.
The United States says Russia-backed Maduro was elected illegitimately and that Guaidó should lead Venezuelans to free elections after years of turmoil. Maduro describes Guaidó as a collaborator in a U.S.-engineered coup plot.
Now, the government is chipping away at the National Assembly, the key Venezuelan institution demanding Maduro’s resignation.
Diosdado Cabello, a leading political ally of Maduro, suggested Thursday that the government is being methodical in its battle with the opposition.
“We’re not in a rush,” Cabello said.
Venezuela’s top court has announced investigations of Zambrano and nine other congress members for alleged roles in supporting Guaidó’s failed appeal for a military uprising on April 30, as others have come under increasing pressure.
“This is clearly fallout from the uprising last week. It amounts to a reassertion of hardliners within the Maduro government,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a non-governmental group.
He suggested that factionalism within the embattled government was on display, with Maikel Moreno, head of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, among those who were “trying to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime.” Moreno had been identified by the U.S. as a conspirator in Guaidó’s failed scheme.
Smilde also said hardliners within the intelligence service, whose former chief broke ranks with Maduro, are “showing they are still on board.”
The U.S. and European and Latin American countries that support Venezuela’s opposition condemned the arrest of Zambrano, saying his parliamentary immunity was illegally lifted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the arrest of Zambrano “is an unacceptable and illegal act that is yet another reflection of the repression of the former Maduro regime.”
“This assault on the National Assembly should serve as a clarion call to the region and the world that the dictatorship is not interested in constitutional solutions to the Venezuelan people’s problems,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Separately, Mexico also expressed concern about the arrest and the targeting of National Assembly members. The criticism was unusual because Mexico says it believes in nonintervention and has not recognized Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
A total of 29 National Assembly members, or 25% of parliamentarians who oppose the government, have been persecuted by the pro-Maduro supreme court, according to Guaidó.
Some members of the opposition-led congress have sought refuge in diplomatic missions, echoing moves made by 1970s-era dissidents scrambling for protection under the flags of other countries during the previous era of Latin American dictatorships.
Richard Blanco, an opposition congressman, on Thursday told VPItv, a local media outlet, that he had gone to the Argentine embassy. Another, Mariela Magallanes, is staying at the home of the Italian ambassador. On Thursday afternoon, legislator Americo De Grazia indicated on Twitter that Italian diplomats were also hosting him.
Opposition activist Leopoldo López entered the home of the Spanish ambassador after he joined Guaidó in the failed attempt to topple Maduro. López was detained for anti-government protests in 2014 and had been under house arrest for two years before he was freed.
On Thursday, Miguel Rodríguez Torres, a former spy chief who became a government critic, was also transferred by military police to a maximum-security cell at a Caracas military base, his political movement said. Rodríguez Torres was arrested a year ago.