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LATIN AMERICA | 30-04-2019 14:31

Macri throws backing behind Guaidó as tensions escalate in Venezuela

President says he hopes Guaidó-López uprising in Caracas is a 'decisive moment for the restoration of democracy' in Venezuela.

President Mauricio Macri this afternoon reiterated his support for Juan Guaidó, after Venezuela's opposition leader made a renewed bit to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power.

Posting on Twitter in all caps, Macri said "We support more than ever democracy in Venezuela," adding that Argentina "celebrates the liberation of Leopoldo López and accompanies the struggle of the Venezuelan people to regain their freedom." He reiterated that his government recognised the "President-in-Charge Guaidó, the National Assembly" and said Argentina did not recognise the "authority" of "dictator Maduro."

"We hope that this is the decisive moment for the restoration of democracy," he said, calling for a "period of freedom, wisdom and growth."

"It won't be easy," President Macri added.

In what seemed to be a thinly veiled attempt to score political points against his likely rival in October's presidential election, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the president closed his thread of messages by declaring that the "history of the last 20 years in Venezuela" served as a "warning for the whole region: when democracies deviate toward Messianic personalities and populism, sooner or later they become dictatorships."

As events unfolded in Venezuela, governments from around the world expressed a mix of support for Guaidó while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontation.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton, in a Twitter post, said the Armed Forces "must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people."

"The US Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated," United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter.

The White House urged Venezuela's armed forces to stand by the country's "legitimate institutions."

Meanwhile, Spain's caretaker government urged restraint, while the governments of Cuba and Bolivia reiterated their firm support for Maduro. Bolivian President Evo Morales called on Venezuelans to reject the "empire," a reference to the United States.

"We hope with all of our strength that there is no bloodshed. We support a peaceful democratic process in Venezuela. We support the immediate holding of an election for a new president," Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá said.

Colombia's President Iván Duque called on Twitter for "soldiers and the people of Venezuela to place themselves on the right side of history, rejecting dictatorship and Maduro's usurpation".

Colombia also said it was calling an emergency meeting of the Lima Group – a grouping of major Latin American nations plus Canada focused on Venezuela.

Clashes

Meanwhile, in Caracas, anti-government demonstrators clashed with troops loyal to Maduro at an air base in the capital hours after Guaidó, the self-proclaimed interim president of the nation, took to the streets in a bold and risky attempt to lead a military uprising against the embattled socialist.

The early-morning rebellion seems to have only limited military support.

But it was by far the most-serious challenge yet to Maduro's rule since Guaidó, with the backing of the US and dozens of other countries, declared himself the country's interim president in January in rejection of a government he accused of stealing last year's presidential election.

The dramatic events began early Tuesday when Guaidó, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armoured crowd control vehicles, released a three-minute video filmed near a Caracas air base in which he called on civilians and others in the armed forces to join a final push to topple Maduro.

In a surprise, standing alongside him was Leopoldo López, his political mentor and the nation's most-prominent opposition activist, who has largely been silent and unseen since he was detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest.

López said he had been released from house arrest by security forces adhering to an order from Guaidó.

"I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers," Lopez declared.

Loyal troops

As the two opposition leaders coordinated actions from vehicles parked on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent La Carlota air base.

A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reassembling later with Guaidó to a nearby plaza.

A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, firing rocks and Molotov cocktails in an attempt to storm the air base. Amid the mayhem, an armored utility vehicle drove at full speed into the crowd. It was unclear if anyone was hurt.

"It's now or never," said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen soldiers joining the "Operation Freedom" insurrection.

Amid the confusion Maduro tried to project an image of strength, saying he had spoken to several regional military commanders who reaffirmed their loyalty to his socialist revolution.

"Nerves of steel!," he said in a message posted on Twitter.

The events, playing out in the opposition's stronghold in a wealthier neighbourhood of eastern Caracas, appeared not to have triggered a broader military revolt.

Flanked by top military commanders, Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López appeared on national television and condemned Guaido's move as a "terrorist" act that was bound to fail.

'Right-wing extremists'

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the "right-wing extremists" would not succeed in fracturing the Armed Forces, which have largely stood with the socialist leader throughout the months of turmoil.

"Since 2002, we've seen the same pattern," he told The Associated Press, adding that most of Caracas was calm. "They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood they try to construct a narrative,"

Hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, gathered at the presidential palace, answering the call by socialist leaders to come to the embattled Maduro's rescue.

"It's time to defend the revolution with arms," Valentin Santana, head of a militant group, said in a video posted on social media as he brandished an automatic rifle.

Guaidó said the troops who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela's constitution and that in the coming hours he would release a list of top commanders supporting the uprising.

Anti-government demonstrators gathered in several other cities, although there were no reports that Guaidó's supporters had taken control of any military installations.

"The armed forces have taken the right decision," said Guaidó. "With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history."

- TIMES/NA/AP

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