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Venezuelan opposition leader steps up pressure, but Maduro holds on

Yet at the end of the day, Guaidó fell short of the prize he sought: the toppling of President Nicolás Maduro, who has relied on force, intimidation and widely discredited elections to remain in power.

By: New York Times | Published: May 1, 2019 8:40:46 am
Venezuelan opposition leader steps up pressure, but Maduro holds on John Bolton, the Trump administration’s national security adviser, discusses the situation in Venezuela. Clashes erupted in Caracas on Tuesday after the Venezuelan opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, appeared alongside soldiers at a military base and called for the population to rise up against President Nicolas Maduro. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

Written by Nicholas Casey

It was the boldest move yet by Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s opposition leader: At sunrise, he stood flanked by soldiers at an air force base in the heart of the capital, saying rebellion was at hand.

Mutinous security forces supporting him had released the country’s most famed political prisoner. National guardsmen stood at Guaidó’s side as others joined marches to support the protesters they had spent years repressing.

In the streets, anti-government demonstrators clashed with forces loyal to the president amid reports of live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas. A health clinic in Caracas took in 69 people injured during the day. An armored vehicle rammed protesters, but it was not immediately clear how many people were hurt.

Yet at the end of the day, Guaidó fell short of the prize he sought: the toppling of President Nicolás Maduro, who has relied on force, intimidation and widely discredited elections to remain in power.

The events also cast a harsh new light into the division within the armed forces, which puts Venezuela in a precarious position as the country’s political crisis deepens. While the highest ranks of the military dig into their support for Maduro’s government, many rank-and-file soldiers appear willing to defy their commanders and come to the aid of the opposition.

“I think ultimately what we’re going to see coming out of this is both the government and the opposition recognizing that their hands were not as strong as they thought they were,” said Geoff Ramsey, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group.

The gamble by Guaidó was brazen: A predawn takeover of a military base in the heart of the capital, Caracas. The deep symbolism of such an act, it was hoped, would help galvanize soldier and citizen alike to end Maduro’s authoritarian rule.

The Trump administration immediately came out in support of the opposition, with the president, vice president and others publicly stating their approval on Twitter. President Donald Trump also threatened “a full and complete” embargo on Cuba if it did not stop what he called “military and other operations for the purpose of causing death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela.”

The Trump administration, which has backed Guaidó since he first challenged Maduro’s authority more than three months ago, clearly thought the day would unfold differently.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” said Maduro and senior leaders in his government had been prepared to fly to Cuba on Tuesday morning, with “an airplane on the tarmac,” but that Russia, a powerful ally of Maduro’s, had “indicated he should stay.” Pompeo offered no evidence.

John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said top officials in Maduro’s government had committed to transitioning power to Guaidó. He identified them as Vladimir Padrino López, the defense minister, Maikel Moreno, the head of the Supreme Court, and Rafael Hernández Dala, the commander of Maduro’s presidential guard.

“All agreed Maduro had to go,” Bolton said. But Padrino López and Moreno both came out publicly in defense of Maduro on Tuesday.

Since January, Guaidó has run what amounts to a parallel government, counting on support from more than 50 countries, including the United States, even as Maduro remains the country’s leader. Despite Maduro’s low popularity, however, the opposition’s momentum has been sapped as Guaidó has failed to depose the president or solve the shortages of food, medicine, water and power that plague the country’s 30 million people.

But if there had been any likelihood that top military brass would turn sides Tuesday, it seemed quashed by early afternoon when Padrino López, the defense minister, spoke on television, calling the act “an attempt at a coup, without a doubt, at a mediocre level.”

The defense minister also came flanked by soldiers, but they pledged loyalty to Maduro and vowed to hunt down those responsible.

By day’s end, news spread of another blow to the opposition: Leopoldo López, the political prisoner who heads Guaidó’s party, had fled into the Chilean Embassy, along with his wife, Lilian Tintori. Only hours earlier, López had appeared freed from house arrest imposed by Maduro’s government.

Venezuelans in Caracas said they were bracing for a revived but protracted struggle between Maduro and Guaidó, with an unclear outcome.

“I believe this is very important, but I see apathy and fear in people,” said one protester, Mary Galaviz, 69. “We should not be afraid. In war there is death, but goals are achieved.”

Miriam Segovia, 52, another protester near the military base, said she hoped that the armed forces would “put themselves on the side of the constitution, so we can escape this misery, this hunger and lack of medication.”

The response was far more mixed — and chaotic.

In a video broadcast online, an armored vehicle could be seen accelerating directly into a group of protesters, leaving at least one person lying on the road behind it. In a separate series of photos, an armored vehicle appeared to run over a protester.

Tear gas canisters could be seen detonating near the military base, where about 2,000 people had gathered around noon. About 200 people converged near the president’s Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, in support of Maduro’s government. Some were armed.

At least 69 people were wounded, according to Salud Chacao, one of the hospitals attending them.

The scenes drew condemnations from governments around the region. Eleven countries, including Venezuela’s neighbors Colombia and Brazil, issued a statement denouncing what they called “the indiscriminate use of violence to repress the transition process.”

The countries, known regionally as the Lima Group, encouraged the military to back Guaidó. They called for a meeting to discuss the situation on May 3.

Rocío San Miguel, a security analyst in Caracas, said Guaidó had failed to get the majority of the armed forces to switch sides.

“It took 12 hours, but we saw that the balance of power hadn’t shifted,” San Miguel said. “In the end the scenario they got was that none of the important commanders joined the opposition.”

But she said it was also telling that the armed forces had arrested neither Guaidó nor López, the political prisoner, presumably fearing a backlash for detaining the popular leaders.

“This situation is not easy for Maduro either,” she said.

On Tuesday night, Maduro appeared with top military and civilian leaders in a televised address to denounce Guaidó and López, whom he characterized as American puppets. He called the day’s events a coup attempt and claimed that the opposition never got control of the military base, but rather was easily fended off by loyal soldiers there.

“We will continue to be victorious in every juncture that follows,” he said. “Our cause is crystal clear. It’s the cause of the defense of the country.”

Guaidó appeared in a video message Tuesday night, urging Venezuelans to head to the streets for a May Day protest of “peaceful rebellion.”

The fate of López, now hiding in the Spanish Embassy, also promised a new wrinkle going forward.

López is the country’s most well-known political prisoner, sentenced to nearly 14 years after having led street protests against Maduro in 2014. In the morning, Venezuelans woke to the sight of him freed, standing beside Guaidó, saying soldiers who supported the opposition had released him.

“This is a movement of the people with the armed forces,” he told reporters gathered around him.

But by evening, Chile’s foreign minister, Roberto Ampuero, announced that López and his wife were at the Spanish Embassy “as guests” after a period of hiding at the Chilean one.

It was unclear whether López had requested asylum. An opposition lawmaker, Freddy Guevara, sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence in November 2017 and remains there.

There was less clarity for Venezuela’s politics, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a political analyst in Caracas. By forcing only López into hiding, Maduro had neither ended Guaidó’s challenge nor allowed him to gain a new opening by freeing a popular leader.

“Neither side can impose itself on the other,” he said.

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