Venezuela official: US in talks to improve frosty relations

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — More than 700 opponents of President Nicolas Maduro have been arrested during the latest push by Venezuela’s opposition to oust the socialist leader.

But there’s one anti-government activist security forces notably haven’t touched: Juan Guaido, the lawmaker who declared himself interim president in a direct challenge to Maduro’s rule.

Maduro’s refusal, at least so far, to order Guaido’s arrest reflects mistrust in his own security forces as well as the Trump administration’s warning that any harm to the man the U.S. recognizes as Venezuela’s legitimate leader would be crossing a dangerous red line.

The U.S. administration reiterated that threat Monday in announcing sweeping sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company.

Any actions taken against U.S. diplomats, Guaido or the National Assembly he presides over would be considered a “grave assault” that “will be met with a significant response,” U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said.

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While he didn’t specify what actions the U.S. might take, he reaffirmed that all options for dealing with Venezuela’s crisis remain on the table, including use of the military.

“They won’t dare touch Guaido,” said Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There’s a new dynamic at play. Even while Maduro’s government continues to brutally repress the poor and invisible, they won’t harm Guaido because he has so much international support.”

Maduro’s government on several occasions has threatened to arrest the 35-year-old lawmaker, accusing him of violating the constitution and acting as a “puppet” of a U.S. coup attempt.

But every day that Guaido is allowed to move freely around Caracas, holding rallies and building a parallel government complete with foreign ambassadors and a presidential-looking office from which he delivers videotaped messages, he looks statelier and undermines Maduro’s authority in the eyes of ordinary Venezuelans, Vivanco said.

On Monday, a consular officer in Miami joined Venezuela’s military attache in Washington, Col. Jose Luis Silva, in ditching support for Maduro and recognizing Guaido.

“I’m always at the service of my beloved country. I’ll continue to provide consular services in Miami,” Scarlet Salazar said in a video announcing her allegiance to Guaido as she stood in front of a Venezuelan flag. “This is our country’s moment.”

It’s not clear what security precautions Guaido is taking to avoid arrest. But he’s not exactly been hard to find.

On Friday, he held a news conference in a Caracas plaza announced hours in advance on social media, and on Sunday he attended a church service for victims of anti-government unrest.

In both instances he spoke with a studied coolness, seemingly unconcerned about the enormous risks he was taking by openly defying Maduro. In 2014, his political mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested during an outdoor rally, and numerous other politicians, activists and even two small-town firefighters who published an online video mocking Maduro as a mule have been arrested over the past year.

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Foro Penal, a local rights group, said Monday that in a single week of unrest more than 700 people have been detained. Another 35 have been killed during the unrest, many in poor neighborhoods where the opposition traditionally dominates.

The government has yet to comment on the report but socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello on Monday tried to turn the tables on Guaido, saying his security was now in the hands of the U.S. Embassy.

“If something happens to this man, or any leader from the opposition, it’s part of the imperialists’ plans,” Cabello said at a rally Monday in the central city of Barquisimeto.

Francisco Gonzalez, a pro-government analyst, said that while Maduro’s weakness and Venezuela’s economic and social problems are self-evident, many in the country resent the heavy-handed role the Trump administration is playing in the fast-unfolding crisis.

“The discontent is real,” said Gonzalez. “But at this stage it’s more about Trump looking for a foreign policy win to counter the decline in the U.S. geopolitical influence.”

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

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