Written by: Neil MacFarquhar and Ana Vanessa Herrero
The leader of Venezuela’s armed forces declared loyalty to President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday and said the opposition’s effort to replace him with a transitional government amounted to an attempted coup.
The pronouncement by the defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, came a day after an opposition lawmaker proclaimed himself the country’s rightful leader during nationwide protests and pleaded with the armed forces to abandon Maduro.
The defense minister’s declaration was a setback for the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, whose claim to legitimacy has been backed by a number of countries, including the United States. In a further blow to the opposition, Russia warned the United States on Thursday against meddling in Venezuela, a longtime Kremlin ally that has received billions of dollars in Russian support.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia telephoned Maduro and “emphasized that destructive external interference is a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law,” according to a statement on Putin’s official website.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ignored the admonitions and intensified the Trump administration’s call for other countries to accept Guaidó and renounce Maduro.
“His regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt, and it is undemocratic to the core,” Pompeo told a meeting of the 35-member Organization of American States in Washington.
The United States also offered $20 million in emergency aid to Guaidó’s side and requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday on the Venezuela crisis. Diplomats said Pompeo was expected to attend.
Taken together, the events escalated the confusion and conflict over who is the rightful president of Venezuela, the oil-rich and formerly prosperous country upended by political repression and severe economic hardship under Maduro.
An infuriated Maduro cut ties Wednesday with the United States and ordered all diplomats to leave within 72 hours. Pompeo said the United States would not comply.
But a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the embassy in Caracas was evacuating all family members and several diplomats, keeping a core team of officers in place. How long they might stay remained unclear.
Maduro, addressing Supreme Court judges at an event Thursday afternoon, urged the United States to heed his call to withdraw all diplomats by this weekend.
“If there is any sense and rationality, I say to the State Department: You must follow the order,” Maduro said.
He added that Venezuela’s diplomatic missions in the United States, which include an embassy in Washington and consulates in Florida and Texas, would be shut down by Saturday.
Opposition leaders had hoped key members of the armed forces would break ranks with Maduro after large demonstrations across the country and international pledges of support for Guaidó, including the Trump administration’s repeated warnings that a “military option” is possible for restoring democracy in Venezuela.
But so far, senior military commanders appear to be siding with Maduro, even as they express alarm over the possible consequences of rival claims to power.
“We’re here to avoid a clash between Venezuelans,” Padrino, the defense minister, said in a televised address, flanked by high-ranking officers. “It’s not a civil war, a war among brothers, that will resolve Venezuelans’ problems.”
Padrino called Guaidó’s claim to power “laughable” and described him as a pawn of right-wing factions subservient to the United States.
“It makes you want to laugh,” he said. “But I must alert the people of the danger this represents.”
Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Organization of American States have also recognized Guaidó as the country’s leader. Others in the region, however, have not, including Mexico, as well as Cuba and Bolivia, longtime allies of Maduro.
Guaidó took an oath Wednesday to lead Venezuela until fair elections can be held. He has argued that as the president of the National Assembly, an opposition-controlled legislative body, he has the constitutional authority to assume power after Maduro took office earlier this month following an election widely viewed as rigged.
The military’s pledge of support for Maduro raised the stakes of a standoff that U.S. officials had hoped would be resolved quickly.
Diplomats who back Guaidó hoped that key members of the armed forces would switch sides after an outpouring of support for Guaidó on the streets of Venezuela on Wednesday, and pledges of support by several nations in Latin America.
Military analysts and diplomats were surprised that Padrino had remained largely silent and invisible for hours after Guaidó proclaimed himself the country’s interim president. Some were looking for signs of rifts within the armed forces.
Yet, Padrino said he was speaking for a unified command.
“A de facto parallel government lacks legal standing and popular backing,” said Padrino, reading from a statement he said represented the position of the armed forces. He added that the opposition had the “dark aim of sowing chaos and anarchy in our society.”
At least 14 people in Venezuela have been killed in clashes with security forces and other politically related violence since Tuesday, according to the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights, known by its Spanish acronym, PROVEA.
Shortly before Padrino spoke, Venezuelan state television aired pronouncements by regional commanders pledging fealty to Maduro.
Rocío San Miguel, a defense analyst in Venezuela who studies the military, said it was notable that the military weighed in so late after Guaidó took the oath. For the time being, she said, commanders appeared to have concluded that Maduro has the upper hand.
While the armed forces “aspire to a peaceful resolution” to the crisis, they will “stick with the most concrete power structure, pragmatically,” said San Miguel, who runs an organization called Citizen Control.
San Miguel said military leaders may ultimately flip. That, she added, would possibly happen if the rank and file are signaling clearly that they do not want to crack down on protesters.
“That would be the sign that Maduro has to leave,” she said.
Before the defense minister spoke Thursday, Russia accused the United States of promoting regime change in Venezuela, warning of the “catastrophic” consequences of destabilizing the country.
Moscow has been a close ally of Venezuela for more than a decade, shoring up the country’s crumbling economy with billions of dollars in loans as well as military support.
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a series of blistering statements, particularly concerning the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.
“Signals coming from certain capitals indicating the possibility of external military interference look particularly disquieting,” the Foreign Ministry said. “We warn against such reckless actions, which threaten catastrophic consequences.”
It did not specify what those consequences might be.
Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said the United States was being hypocritical in accusing Russia of meddling in U.S. elections while blatantly interfering in Venezuela’s internal affairs.
He also said that hints of armed intervention were particularly alarming.
“This is interference in the internal affairs of the state, and as you know, there was a clear attempt to remove Nicolás Maduro from power,” Lavrov told a news conference in Algiers, where he was visiting. He also suggested that the United States had a hand in plots for “physically eliminating him.”
“That the United States and some other countries have recognized the self-proclaimed president shows that they played a direct role in the crisis in Venezuela,” Lavrov said, adding that a country with two presidents would lead to “chaos and instability.”
The foreign minister said that Russia was ready to join with other “responsible countries” to start a national dialogue among Venezuelans while avoiding calls to overthrow the legitimate government.
As recently as December, Russia dispatched a small group of aircraft to Venezuela in a show of solidarity with Maduro, including two Tu-160 nuclear-capable bombers that flew more than 6,000 miles.
More important, it has given Venezuela more than $10 billion in financial assistance in recent years. In exchange, Rosneft, the Russian state oil company, has acquired stakes in Venezuela’s energy sector.
Venezuela has also been one of the largest markets for Russian arms exports in Latin America. It signed 30 contracts worth $11 billion from 2005 to 2013, according to Russian news agency Tass.
Peskov declined to discuss what might happen to the loans should the Maduro government fall, and would not speculate whether Russia might offer him asylum, emphasizing that in the Kremlin’s view, he remained the legitimate president of Venezuela.
China, another critical foreign partner of Maduro, has offered a more neutral message, not explicitly condemning U.S. support for his opponents.
In a statement Thursday, China’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope that all sides in the conflict would “resolve their political differences through dialogue and consultation premised on respect for constitutional government.”
China has been a supporter of the leftist government in Venezuela since Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, first came to power, and both leaders were feted in visits to Beijing. The relationship has been undergirded by China’s growing appetite for oil, partly paid for with tens of billions of dollars in loans to Venezuela.
By 2015, China’s loans to Venezuela had grown to $65 billion, a Chinese Ministry of Commerce researcher said that year.
But China’s enthusiasm for Venezuela has dimmed in recent years as the Venezuelan economy has staggered. In 2016, China agreed to relax conditions on Venezuela’s payments in an oil-for-loans agreement. When Maduro visited China last year, reports indicated that his wishes for a big injection of Chinese loans were not granted.