Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has taken to the streets with detained activist Leopoldo Lopez and a small contingent of heavily armed soldiers in a military uprising, but the country’s president remains defiant, saying top military leaders have assured him of their loyalty.
Guaido said on Tuesday he had begun the “final phase” of his plan to oust President Nicolas Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the military to back him to end Maduro’s “usurpation.”
“The national armed forces have taken the correct decision, and they count on the support of the Venezuelan people,” Guaido said in a video posted on his Twitter account.
Lopez said he had been freed by the military.
“This is the moment of all Venezuelans, those in uniform and those who aren’t,” said Lopez in his first public appearance since being detained in 2014 for leading anti-government protests. “Everyone should come to the streets, in peace.”
As Lopez spoke, there were sporadic efforts with tear gas to break up the protesters who gathered on a highway overpass in wealthier eastern Caracas. It appeared to have been fired from inside the Carlota airbase. But more people gathered as they sensed what could be their strongest opportunity yet to overthrow the government.
“It’s now or never,” said one of the young soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna preferred by the few dozen soldiers who stood alongside Guaido and Lopez.
The early morning rebellion seems to have only limited military support.
As the two allies co-ordinated actions from vehicles parked on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent Carlota air base. A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, with a smaller group of masked youths reassembling outside the air base’s gates where they lobbed rocks and other heavy objects.
U.S. encourages support for Guaido
Maduro took to Twitter to say that the top commanders of the various divisions of the military had assured him of their loyalty.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza alleged that the U.S. likely paid a guard to allow Lopez escape house arrest.
Earlier, Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez tweeted the government was confronting a small group of “military traitors” seeking to promote a coup.
Venezuela’s socialist party boss, Diosdado Cabello, called on government supporters to amass at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he called a small uprising of traitorous military soldiers backed by the U.S.
Cabello downplayed the significance of the rebellion, saying Caracas is in calm and the Carlota airbase near where the rebellious soldiers are gathered had not been touched.
But a CBC News reporter said it appeared the government was attempting to block access to major social media and video streaming channels such as Twitter, Periscope and YouTube, with citizens reporting difficulty accessing them.
Guaido, of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
He has been travelling outside the capital, Caracas, more and more in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.
The developments on Tuesday were being monitored closely by the international community, including by U.S. President Donald Trump, the White House said.
Venezuelan troops should “stand by the national assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy,” John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, said in a tweet directed at Vladimir Padrino, Maduro’s defence minister.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on social media that the U.S. stands with the Venezuelan people “in their quest for freedom and democracy.”
Padrino on Twitter rejected what he called an attempt by a “subversive movement” to generate “panic and terror.”
<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Venezuela?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Venezuela</a>: our embassy in <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Caracas?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Caracas</a> is closed today but consular services remain available. Canadians can contact us by email at email@example.com or dial +58 212 600 3099. <a href=”https://t.co/Oay99IAHAj”>https://t.co/Oay99IAHAj</a> 2/2
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted: “The safety and security of [Juan Guaido] and [Leopoldo Lopez] must be guaranteed.
“Venezuelans who peacefully support Interim President Guaido must do so without fear of intimidation or violence,” added Freeland, a key player in the Lima Group of countries that gather frequently to grapple with the political and humanitarian tumult in Venezuela.
The Canadian Embassy in Caracas was closed on Tuesday.
The Russian government was tight-lipped, with new agencies quoting Kremlin spokeperson Dmtiry Peskov, who said President Vladimir Putin discussed the Venezuelan situation with his top security body.
Mexico, among a minority of Latin American countries to not recognize Guaido as interim leader of Venezuela, struck a similar tone. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his foreign relations department expressed concern over a possible escalation of violence and bloodshed, with Lopez Obrador repeating in a Tuesday morning news conference that dialogue was the preferred path.
‘Largest march in Venezuela’s history’ Wednesday
Guaido said soldiers who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela’s constitution. He made the comments a day before a planned anti-government rally.
“The moment is now,” he said.
Protests are planned for Wednesday, including what Guaido has said will be “the largest march in Venezuela’s history,” part of what he calls the “definitive phase” of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.
Maduro calls Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.
Last week, Guaido said his congressional ally — opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro — had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.
This story originally appeared on CBC