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Guaido's return to Venezuela to mark brazen defiance of Maduro

Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh

CARACAS, Feb 26 (Reuters) - First he declared a rival presidency. Then he made a play for Citgo. Last weekend he flouted a court travel ban. Now, Juan Guaido says he is headed back home to Venezuela in another challenge to President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido, recognized by most Western nations as the country's legitimate leader, slipped into neighboring Colombia last week to lead an ultimately failed effort to bring humanitarian aid into the crisis-stricken country.

After meeting with regional leaders including U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Bogota, Guaido is expected to come back through the porous border in the coming days and resume his political activities in open defiance of a Supreme Court order.

"I'm going to return to Caracas this week," Guaido said in an interview with NTN24 broadcast on Tuesday. "My role and my duty is to be in Caracas despite the risks."

He traveled last week from Caracas across the country in a caravan and then slipped into Colombia via back roads along the 2,200 km (1,367 miles) border, according to Colombian local media. Guaido said he received help from members of Venezuela's armed forces.

Representatives for Guaido declined to disclose a timetable for his return or whether he will return the same way. To return via an official route would pose an even more brazen challenge to Maduro's authority.

Maduro has faced regional condemnation this week for violently driving back the opposition's attempts to bring in humanitarian aid. He denies there is a crisis despite overseeing a hyperinflationary economic meltdown that has spawned widespread food and medicine shortages.

Guaido's return will force Maduro to decide whether to risk even greater international outrage by attempting to arrest the 35-year old congress chief or to allow him to openly disregard state institutions linked to the ruling Socialist Party.

"Trying to manage the Guaido situation has become a real problem for the government because (Guaido) has grown so much politically," said Luis Salamanca, a political scientist and constitutional law professor at Venezuela's Central University.

Guaido invoked articles of the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, declaring Maduro a usurper following his 2018 re-election in a vote widely boycotted by the opposition.

State institutions including the chief prosecutor's office, the Supreme Court, and the comptroller's officer - all openly allied with Maduro - responded by opening investigations of Guaido.

But no state institution has sought his arrest or even formally accused him of a crime. So far authorities have only frozen his local bank accounts and prohibited foreign travel.

The ruling Socialist Party has in the past clipped the wings of opposition politicians, particularly charismatic challengers, by accusing them of irregularities in managing state funds.

Maduro said in an ABC News interview released on Tuesday that Guaido's fate was up to the justice system: "He can't just come and go. He will have to face justice, and justice prohibited him from leaving the country. I will respect the laws."

Venezuela's Information Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Guaido said his team had a strategy should he be detained, without giving details on what that was.

"A prisoner doesn't do anyone any good but neither does an exiled president so we are in uncharted waters here," he said.

KEEPING UP MOMENTUM

Many Venezuelans credit Guaido, a fresh face, with capturing the international community's attention through his bold move to swear himself in as interim president, galvanizing a once-fractured and weary opposition.

Maduro, who has described his rival as a U.S.-backed puppet, now faces severe international pressure including U.S. sanctions meant to cripple the OPEC nation's vital oil industry.

"I hope he returns because he has shown himself to be a politician with strength, who has given us hope," said Martha Sanchez, 65, a receptionist who has lost a third of her weight due to hyperinflation that has left her struggling to buy food on a minimum wage equivalent to less than $10 per month.

Guaido's attempt to bring humanitarian aid into the country had in particular fueled her hope as she has been unable to find hypertension pills for sale over the past two months.

"No other candidate called for humanitarian aid before," she said.

To be sure, Guaido's team also faces a conundrum after that effort failed, allowing Maduro to declare victory even as the images of troops firing tear gas on convoys carrying aid sparked anger around the world.

Guaido's team has won control over crucial offshore assets including U.S.-based refiner Citgo, but still does not control the ports or central bank, or, most crucially, the armed forces.

"If he doesn't keep up momentum, he will end up being another failed leader of the opposition," said Jesus Barreto, a 21-year old student. "He needs to keep challenging the government."

Maduro's government has largely allowed him to carry out political activities including rallies and press conferences, and appears unwilling to imprison him - even now that he has openly flouted a legal restriction placed upon him.

"I think they will hold off because it is much more sustainable over time to make your opponent seem ineffective than making yourself appear more like a dictator, especially when there is so much focus on you," said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks. (Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Corina Pons and Vivian Sequera; Editing by Christian Plumb and Phil Berlowitz)