CARACAS (Reuters) - Prominent Venezuelan lawmaker Freddy Guevara has sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in Caracas amid fears he could be jailed, a development that leaves the ailing opposition with even fewer leaders to take on leftist President Nicolas Maduro.
Authorities had sought to remove Guevara’s congressional immunity so that he could be tried for instigating violence. The opposition and local media said that Sebin intelligence agents had surrounded Guevara’s house over the weekend.
Guevara, a 31-year-old who runs the hardline Popular Will party and is also the deputy leader of congress, entered the residence on Saturday and requested protection, the Chilean government said in a statement.
Guevara could become the highest-profile Venezuelan politician to seek exile in recent years.
A majority of opposition leaders are now unable to challenge unpopular Maduro, a 54-year-old former bus driver and foreign minister whom they blame for the oil-rich nation’s economic downfall.
Anti-Maduro politicians have been barred from holding office, like two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles; arrested or placed under house arrest, like opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez; or threatened with trial, like congress leader Julio Borges who could face treason charges for lobbying against Venezuela’s government in global financial circles.
The opposition coalition condemned the threats against Guevara as another sign that Maduro has turned the OPEC member into a dictatorship.
“This is an arbitrary and political decision that seeks to weaken a congress that has the full support of the people. Venezuela is hungry for food, but also freedom, justice and dignity,” said Borges at a news conference on Sunday.
“Freddy Guevara has taken a personal decision. In my case I have to keep doing what I have to do,” added Borges, who did not offer details on Guevara’s arrival at the residence.
Authorities on Sunday mocked Guevara, a fiery former student leader, for taking refuge at the embassy.
“Some people are very brave when it comes to calling for and provoking violence, destruction, and death. But when justice is done, they flee with embarrassing cowardice,” tweeted Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.
Guevara was often on the front lines of sometimes violent protests earlier this year to demand early elections, humanitarian aid to alleviate hunger, freedom for jailed dissidents, and respect for the opposition-led congress.
The government says counters demonstrations were in fact a U.S.-backed “armed insurrection” designed to oust Maduro. Authorities say opposition politicians are responsible for the around 125 deaths during four months of unrest, and as such should face trial.
Amid the political crackdown, the Chilean residence in Caracas has played a significant role, taking in five magistrates named by the opposition-run congress after they were threatened with jail time, as well as another opposition politician from party COPEI.
The magistrates fled over the border to Colombia last month before flying to Santiago to be received by leftist Michelle Bachelet’s government, which has joined a chorus of major Latin American nations in denouncing Maduro.
In the 1970s, several thousand Chileans, including novelist Isabel Allende, who fled Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship found exile in then-booming Venezuela.
Additional reporting by Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Keith Weir and Lisa Shumaker