SANTIAGO, Chile — What will happen to Venezuela’s opposition leader, and the movement he leads, when he returns to Venezuela?
That question has been asked across South America since Juan Guaidó left his country more than a week ago, defying a travel ban from Venezuela’s courts to embark on a largely improvised tour of the continent to shore up support.
For his followers, the return can’t come soon enough, as his continued absence raises questions about the momentum of the movement he began.
“I think it’s confused the people because it’s left us without a road map — it risks people losing faith in his project,” said María Durán, who works at a nongovernmental organization in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital. “There are people who ask: What happened?”
Originally, Mr. Guaidó had vowed to be back on Feb. 23, planning to go in with a humanitarian aid shipment meant to pierce a military blockade of the borders set up by President Nicolás Maduro. But Mr. Maduro parried off the attempt with tear gas and rubber bullets, closing border bridges into Venezuela.
Then, the opposition floated the idea of a return after Mr. Guaidó met on Feb. 25 with Vice President Mike Pence and other regional leaders in Bogotá, Colombia. Mr. Maduro responded with an interview with ABC News saying he could have Mr. Guaidó arrested for breaking the law.
Now, Mr. Guaidó has set a deadline of Monday morning for his return.
With each additional day that Mr. Guaidó spends outside the country, he further risks losing the unity of opposition parties, which have a long history of fracturing, said Geoff Ramsey, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“At this point, the opposition doesn’t need another leader in exile,” Mr. Ramsey said. “The more time that Guaidó spends away from Caracas, the more the opposition becomes leaderless.”
Mr. Guaidó has spent most of the past week on a tour of the continent, with stops in Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador. These regional allies are among the 50 countries, including the United States, that have recognized him as president, not Mr. Maduro, who swore himself in in January for a second term after an election widely viewed as undemocratic.
Yet Mr. Guaidó remains a leader without a state, and any return to Venezuela could land him in prison.
“They may jail him,” said Lawrence Castro, an opposition lawmaker from Mr. Guaidó’s political party, who has himself stayed out of Venezuela until Mr. Guaidó returns. “But we have to do everything we can to enter.”
The Trump administration has threatened repercussions for the Maduro government should Mr. Guaidó be jailed. But Mr. Maduro has challenged the United States already with his detentions, which included briefly holding the Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos during a confrontational interview. The Maduro government has also detained Mr. Guaidó in the past and sent the police to his home.
Mr. Guaidó’s international tour appears to be an effort to ensure that doesn’t happen again.
“He’s asking, ‘If I go back and am arrested, then what will you do?’” said Alejandro Velasco, a historian of Venezuela at New York University.
The tour of regional capitals has also given the opposition time to regroup after a bruising loss over the aid shipment.
Mr. Guaidó had raised hopes among his supporters, who have suffered severe food shortages, with promises that an “aid avalanche” would flood the country with food and medicine — and turn Mr. Maduro’s military against him. But armed gangs and soldiers loyal to the government easily blocked the aid, and supporters were reduced to throwing stones to express their anger.
The opposition faced further setbacks when it tried to escalate the dispute, calling for a military intervention by Venezuela’s neighbors to oust Mr. Maduro. In a meeting last Monday in Bogotá, most leaders attending rebuffed the call. The Trump administration has ruled out using the military to force aid into the country.
With Mr. Maduro firmly controlling the borders, and defections from his military so far numbering only in the hundreds, the opposition is being forced to accept that the government’s rule appears to be more durable than Mr. Guaidó had painted it.
Ricardo Reyes, a journalist in Caracas, said that in Venezuela that message had been sinking in. “A transition process isn’t easy and sometimes drags on more than you thought, especially when your Plan A didn’t work out,” he said.
Given Mr. Maduro’s continued hold, the international community is considering compromises.
On Wednesday, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, who is one of Mr. Guaidó’s chief international supporters, said he would not object to Mr. Maduro’s running for office again if a new election was free and fair. Mr. Almagro had previously joined hard-liners in demanding that the president step down.
On his stops abroad, Mr. Guaidó has been greeted as a head of state, a contrast to his secretive, undercover departure from Venezuela to defy a travel ban.
His trip began in Brazil, where he met the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who has referred to leftists there as “red outlaws” and threatened to drive them out. Mr. Guaidó also met with Lenín Moreno, Ecuador’s center-left president, to show that he has support on both sides of the political divide.
In Argentina, Mr. Guaidó was greeted by large crowds of Venezuelans, many of whom had fled the economic crisis over which Mr. Maduro has presided.
“There is no turning back,” Mr. Guaidó told a crowd gathered at a square in Buenos Aires. “The only turning back we will do is when we go back home. And I promise you that will be soon.”