CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela’s opposition-led congress stood by Juan Guaidó on Tuesday, saying he will be the crisis-wracked nation’s interim president until Nicolás Maduro’s grip on power has been broken.
The socialist government hours later released the No. 2 leader of congress, Edgar Zambrano, in what appeared to be a gesture to a new round of negotiations launched with a minority group of opposition parties that didn’t include Guaidó.
“Politics took me to prison, and its politics that got me out,” Zambrano said after being released from a Caracas military base, where he was jailed more than four months charged as a terrorist after accompanying Guaidó to a failed military uprising.
The National Assembly vote reaffirming Guaidó’s leadership came a day after four minority opposition parties announced that they are entering a new round of talks with Maduro’s government. It was a first sign of cracks in the campaign to topple the socialist leader since Guaidó took the lead.
The 36-year-old Guaidó earlier Tuesday thanked his fellow lawmakers after the vote, and he dismissed the minority parties’ attempt to steal the limelight.
“The only legitimate power recognized by the international community is the National Assembly,” Guaidó said. “Everything else is artificial, created to distract public attention.”
Guaidó rose from near obscurity in January after being named head of the National Assembly. He next claimed presidential powers, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. He quickly gained backing from more than 50 nations, including the United States.
Registering its backing, the National Assembly gave Guaidó its “unrestricted political support” until Maduro’s rule ends. The National Assembly is widely seen as the last institution of Venezuela outside Maduro’s control. Under normal circumstances, Guaidó’s term would end in January when he would pass the post as head of the National Assembly to another lawmaker.
Maduro, who considers Guaidó a puppet of the Trump administration, maintains power over Venezuela with backing from the military and nations including Cuba, China and Russia.
The movement to oust Maduro was rattled Tuesday when lawmaker Timoteo Zambrano, the head of a minority opposition party and no relation to Edgar Zambrano, appeared on state TV with members of Maduro’s administration, signing an agreement to launch the new talks.
The parties said their negotiations will focus on reforming Venezuela’s electoral board as well as finding a solution to the impasse caused by the creation of a pro-government constitutional assembly to rival the opposition-controlled congress. It also contemplates the release of prisoners opposition leaders consider jailed for politically motives.
Results started to come late Tuesday, when Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab said he was recommending Zambrano’s release followed by an announcement by a Caracas court ordering his “immediate release.” Now free, Zambrano is banned from leaving the country and will have to report to the court monthly.
Zambrano, 63, was one of the first opposition leaders to answer Guaidó’s call for an insurrection, going to the bridge in Caracas on April 30 where the opposition leader appeared at dawn with a small cadre of soldiers ready to rebel against Maduro though no uprising erupted.
He was arrested at night in early May leaving his Democratic Action party’s headquarters, when he was surprised by a commando unit from the feared SEBIN intelligence agency who surrounded his car. Officers towed the vehicle away with the lawmaker still inside. Neighbors looking on shouted “assassins” as the heavily armed agents pulled away.
Zambrano said his rights were violated, being held in isolation for long stretches before his wife and defense attorney were allowed to visit him.
“We must give a hard look at the policies that both the opposition and by the government have carried out,” Zambrano said. “The ones suffering the consequences of bad politics and a failed political model are the Venezuelan people themselves.”
Guaidó gave credit to the liberation of Zambrano and any others “political prisoners” to relentless pressure from the United Nations’ chief human rights watchdog, Michelle Bachelet — and not the “gentleness” of the “dictatorship.”
“It’s an achievement of those who don’t give up. Freedom for Venezuela!” Guaidó tweeted.
Representatives of both Guaidó and Maduro engaged in talks overseen by Norway on the Caribbean island of Barbados that both sides said ended in failure. It was seen by many as the best chance at resolving Venezuela’s crisis.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement that Maduro’s government sabotaged the Norway talks and is again undermining Venezuela’s return to democracy by engaging in dialogue with the minority opposition parties.
“Maduro and his cronies lured a small fringe group of politicians to engage in ‘so-called talks’ and misrepresented them as speaking for the democratic opposition,” Ortagus said.
The European Union also cast doubt, saying in a statement that it believes any viable path out of Venezuela’s crisis requires involvement of the right players, such as the National Assembly.
“The EU reiterates its support to an inclusive, serious and results oriented process such as the one undertaken by Norway,” the office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement. “The EU will consider the appropriate measures at its disposal to foster the restoration of democracy, rule of law and human rights in Venezuela.”
Lawmaker José Antonio España, a member of Timoteo Zambrano’s party, defended the agreement entering into a new round of dialogue with the government. He told The Associated Press that the accord was achieved in the spirit of “opening doors” to resolve the crisis for all Venezuelans.
“The leadership of the National Assembly has had nine months,” España said. “The path it set in January has shown no results.”