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Supporters Greet Opposition Leader As He Returns To Venezuela

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A defiant Juan Guaido is back in Caracas and calling for new protests across Venezuela. When he arrived, Guaido was met at the airport not by police as some expected but with cheers from his supporters and members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly. Venezuela's opposition leader spent 10 days abroad, hoping to build support for his claim to the presidency. Scott Smith of the Associated Press is in Caracas and joins us on the line. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT SMITH: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So you were at the rally that Guaido held after he got back. Paint a picture for me.

SMITH: Yeah. It was - you know, the crowd trickled in. We were concerned. It's a holiday here. This is a carnival weekend. And their thought was that, you know, a lot of supporters, although they are very enthusiastic, were going to be out of town. But the crowd really swelled, and there were several thousand people who gathered in the square in Caracas here. And, you know, they were just thrilled when Guaido finally took the stage.

There was, you know, concern. Is he going to be here? How is he going to get in? There was a lot of thought that, you know, he would be blocked at the airport or even arrested - that Maduro's government was going to arrest him. So there was just really a sense of jubilation when he did take the stage and started talking to supporters here in Caracas.

GREENE: Yeah, you mentioned this expectation that he could be arrested. I mean, the Supreme Court, which is, I mean, as I understand it, stacked with pro-Maduro people, had put a travel ban on him which he violated. So does it tell us anything about what Maduro is thinking right now if he allowed Guaido to come in and hold a rally and be free?

SMITH: Yeah. It's really a stunning turn of events because, as you say, the Supreme Court and the Venezuelan chief prosecutor has basically banned him from leaving the country. So him coming through the airport and passing through immigration services - really sailing through with no problem was quite shocking. You know, the one figure in the last 24 hours or so who's been missing in this conversation is President Maduro himself. We've not heard from him. He's tweeted a few things, basically, you know, celebrating carnival. But he's not mentioned Guaido, one of his favorite topics to mock. So it's really unclear. You know, I suppose Maduro could order Guaido to be arrested at any moment now still. Maybe he wanted to avoid, you know, sort of a confrontation at the international - you know, the country's largest airport where there were also a delegation of foreign diplomats from the United States, Germany and France awaiting Guaido, as well as his opposition supporters. So another thought is that, possibly, you know, the sign that they - that Maduro's government allowed Guaido back into the country with no issues is that, you know, perhaps, there's a sign of behind-doors secret dialogue that's actually started that we don't know about. That's pure speculation, of course. Nobody's saying that publicly, but...

GREENE: Oh, between Maduro and the opposition - maybe some sort of discussions about how to come to some sort of agreement.

SMITH: There's a - yeah - some thought in Caracas here that, you know, the sign that he was not arrested or turned away, that he came in in such a public manner is that, you know, they're - things are moving in the direction that, you know, could lead to, you know, what the opposition is demanding - is new elections - new presidential elections. So, you know, it's pretty thick with speculation at this point. We'll have to wait and see what plays out in the coming days and weeks.

GREENE: All right. There's been so much speculation. I mean, Venezuela has now been locked in this political crisis since January. Now the opposition leader is back in the country and calling for big protests this weekend. Scott Smith reporting for the Associated Press in Caracas for us this morning. Scott, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAGARTIJEANDO SONG, "SANTA ROSA DE LOS ANDES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.