Venezuela's chief prosecutor orders probe into US-backed opposition leader

By Camilo Montoya-Galvez

/ CBS News

U.S. sanctions Venezuela's oil company

In the first major action by the government of President Nicolás Maduro to fend off a leadership challenge by National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, Venezuela's attorney general Tarek Saab asked the country's highest court to launch a criminal probe against the opposition leader and bar him from leaving Venezuela.

During a press conference outside the Venezuelan Supreme Court, which Maduro has stacked with his allies, Saab accused Guaidó of leading an "assault against the Venezuelan fatherland," but did not mention any specific crimes he believes the opposition leader had committed.

Responding to the announcement, Guaidó said that while he did not underestimate the threat of imprisonment, he did not believe it was "anything new." He added that the accusations were part of the Maduro regime's pattern of persecution and repression against the Venezuelan people.

The Trump administration — which, along with more than a dozen other governments, has pledged its support for Guaidó — quickly condemned the action by Venezuela's chief prosecutor and vowed that any harm to the opposition leader would provoke "serious consequences."

"We denounce the illegitimate former Venezuelan Attorney General's threats against President Juan Guaido. Let me reiterate – there will be serious consequences for those who attempt to subvert democracy and harm Guaido," national security adviser John Bolton wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, echoing a similar warning he issued on Sunday.

Since it recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate interim president, the Trump administration has escalated its efforts to isolate Maduro's authoritarian government.

On Sunday, Vice President Pence met with Carlos Alfredo Vecchio, who the Trump administration has recognized as Venezuela's Chargé d'Affaires in Washington. After the meeting, Vecchio said Guaidó could be arrested by Venezuelan authorities "in the hours to come."

"This is a fight between democracy and dictatorship" he told reporters.

On Monday, the State Department announced it had granted Guaidó control over some of the Venezuelan government's bank accounts held by U.S.-insured banks. A day earlier, Bolton and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin unveiled sweeping sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PdVSA. During the announcement at the White House, Bolton held a legal pad with the words "5,000 troops to Colombia" written on it. Asked for comment on the note, a White House spokesperson told CBS News, "As the president has said, all options are on the table." Colombia's Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes said his government was not aware of the "importance and reason" for Bolton's note.

Guaidó's declaration last week set off a new wave of violence and chaos in oil-rich Venezuela — once considered one of Latin America's wealthiest countries. A United Nations spokesperson said Tuesday more than 40 people have been killed during the recent massive protests in the South American nation.

In recent years, plummeting oil production, skyrocketing inflation and mismanagement have devastated the Venezuelan economy and led to widespread food shortages. The dire situation has prompted more than 2.3 million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014 — an exodus Human Rights Watch called "the largest migration crisis of its kind in recent Latin American history."

Guaidó is betting on pressure from the international community and military defections to oust Maduro. But so far, top military leaders in Venezuela have remained loyal to Maduro. He has called for peaceful, nationwide demonstrations on Wednesday and Saturday to force Maduro's government to hold elections and reiterated that a national assembly amnesty law would protect soldiers and police officers who defect.

Although it has been shunned by the U.S., most Latin American countries and many European leaders, Maduro's leftist government continues to have the strong backing of several countries, including Cuba, Bolivia, Russia and China.

First published on January 29, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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