Guaido, flanked by armed troops, calls on the military to abandon Maduro
By Mery Mogollon and Chris Kraul
Los Angeles Times
Venezuelan police used tear gas Tuesday to try to disperse hundreds of supporters of self-declared President Juan Guaido, who from a freeway near the main Caracas air force base called on the armed forces to abandon their support of President Nicolas Maduro.
Televised coverage of the protest, which Guaido dubbed “Operation Liberty,” showed several uniformed military personnel wearing blue armbands taking part in the demonstration, which closed a principal Caracas freeway the day before nationwide May Day protests against Maduro are expected to take place.
In eastern Caracas, an opposition bastion, protesters were tossing rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, who responded from armored vehicles with volleys of tear gas and blasts of water cannons.
In his comments from atop a pickup truck in the Plaza Francia in the Altamira district, Guaido brandished a pair of megaphones and declared: “Today it is clear that the armed forces are with the people and not with the dictator!”
In a Twitter message, Guaido said: “The moment is now! The 24 states of the nation have taken the path: a street with no return. The future is ours: People and the armed forces united for the end of the usurpation. Together we are invincible!”
But there was no immediate sign of large-scale defections among military forces, and pro-government officials were denouncing “traitors” and reaffirming their loyalty to Maduro.
Guaido, an opposition member of the National Assembly, declared himself president in January, claiming constitutional legitimacy and that Maduro’s reelection last May was fraudulent. The 35-year-old has since garnered considerable international support.
Meanwhile, Maduro declared on Twitter that he had spoken with military leaders nationwide, who vowed their “total loyalty to the people,” and to the constitution. “I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace,” Maduro said. ‘Venceremos!” Maduro added, using a popular revolutionary chant meaning, “We will triumph!”
Heeding calls from Maduro, government supporters were gathering near the Miraflores presidential compound in western Caracas.
Amid the fast-moving events, Maj. Gen. Jesus Rafael Suarez Chourio, Venezuela’s army chief, issued a Twitter message declaring his “absolute loyalty” to Maduro, who is also the military commander in chief. “They cannot divide our people with deceit to comply with unpatriotic interests,” the general tweeted. “North American imperialism will never vanquish us.”
Guaido has previously urged the military to abandon Maduro, and more than 1,000 soldiers and national guard members had been reported seeking asylum in Colombia. But the effectiveness of this most recent call to abandon Maduro remains uncertain.
Members of Maduro’s administration were quick to label military participants in the protest traitors.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino said on state TV that a “very small group of soldiers and police officials” had seized some government vehicles as well as arms and munitions from an armory in the Altamira section of Caracas. He called it an attempted coup and said the soldiers had been “tricked.”
“This violent attempt against the peace has been defeated,” he said.
Appearing with Guaido was Leopoldo Lopez, an opposition leader who has been under house arrest over accusations that he incited violence during mass demonstrations in 2014. Lopez, whose arrest was criticized by many human rights organizations, told reporters that members of the armed forces had “liberated” him.
Officials from the Trump administration, Guaido’s biggest backer, said they were monitoring the fluid situation in Venezuela.
“Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said via Twitter. “The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated. #EstamosUnidosVE”
National security adviser John Bolton, also in a tweet, called on the Venezuelan military to protect “the constitution and the Venezuelan people.”
“It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy,” Bolton wrote. “The United States stands with the people of Venezuela.”
Vice President Mike Pence weighed in as well:
“To @jguaido, the National Assembly and all the freedom-loving people of Venezuela who are taking to the streets today in #operacionlibertad — Estamos con ustedes! We are with you! America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored. Vayan con dios! #FreeVenezuela”
The administration has levied numerous economic sanctions against Maduro, members of his government and inner circle, and crucial revenue sources like the oil and gold-exportation industries.
Colombian President Ivan Duque reiterated Guaido’s call to the Venezuelan military to abandon Maduro, while Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed support for Maduro.
Duque has led several South American nations in their call for Maduro to step aside. Colombia has received an estimated 1.2 million Venezuelan immigrants in recent years, the biggest share among receiver nations of the 4 million Venezuelans who have fled their country since Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez took power in 1999.
Venezuelans are fleeing a collapsed economy, scarce food and medicines, and rampant crime.
(Los Angeles Times special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, Colombia, respectively. Staff writers Patrick McDonnell and Tracy Wilkinson contributed from Mexico City and Washington, respectively.)
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