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LATIN AMERICA | 26-01-2019 10:33

Venezuela opposition leader Guaidó cranks up pressure on Maduro

National Assembly head and self-declared ‘acting president’ calls for major demonstration, rejecting calls for dialogue.

Capping off a turbulent week in Venezuela, opposition leader and selfdeclared ‘interim president’ Juan Guaidó stepped up his campaign to oust President Nicolás Maduro yesterday, calling for a “major demonstration” and rejecting an offer of talks with the socialist leader.

Guaidó, the 35-year-old National Assembly speaker who proclaimed himself acting president during a huge street rally on Wednesday, said he wouldn’t attend a “fake dialogue” effort to end a crisis that has left 26 dead this week in clashes between anti-Maduro activists and Security Forces.

Mexico had offered to host talks earlier in the day, with Maduro professing he was ready to go “wherever I have to.” But Guaidó, who is backed by the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and several Latin American countries, told supporters in Caracas the public would remain in the streets “until we achieve an end to the usurpation, a transitional government and free elections.” He accused Maduro’s regime of only offering talks after “repression” fails to achieve their objectives.

The strength of the diplomatic support the opposition leader has received has undoubtedly emboldened his position.

Argentina was one of the first nations to back his declaration on Wednesday, with President Mauricio Macri quickly issuing his support.

“I would like to express my support for the decision of the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, recognising him as the president-in-charge of that country,” the president posted on Twitter.

DIPLOMATIC ROW

The European Union and the US ratcheted up the pressure on Maduro to agree to new elections yesterday, with one EU diplomat briefing that the bloc wanted “an immediate call for elections in the near future.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will underline US support for the Venezuelan people at a UN Security Council meeting today and urge its members to recognise Guaidó as interim president, the US State Department confirmed.

Maduro mockingly thanked Pompeo for calling the meeting and said he would send his Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza to speak “Venezuela’s truth.”

Along with the Lima Group – of which Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru have backed Guaidó, with Mexico the sole exception – US President Donald Trump’s administration has spearheaded the international pressure on Maduro, who accuses Washington of being behind an attempted “coup,” by declaring his regime “illegitimate.”

Washington announced yesterday it was naming a new envoy to lead efforts to help Venezuela “in achieving democracy.”

Washington’s immediate support for Guaido led to Maduro, who retains the powerful military’s backing, closing his country’s Embassy and consulates in the US and breaking off diplomatic ties.

Guaido, though, urged the US diplomats to stay and keep the Embassy’s doors open. Maduro’s deadline runs out today but despite ordering non-emergency staff to leave Venezuela, the US has refused to comply fully with the order.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denounced US policy on Venezuela as “destructive” while China and Turkey also backing Maduro.

Yesterday, Spain pushed the EU to recognise Guaidó’s claims to the presidency if no new elections are held, while Germany said it may follow suit.

France warned Maduro against “any form of repression” of the opposition, as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, said more than 350 people were arrested this week during the protests.

The key to Venezuela’s future, for most, is the Armed Forces and the military has repeatedly reiterated its loyalty to the socialist leader. Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino López, a general, declared the 56-year-old Maduro “the legitimate president” on Thursday and vowed to defend his authority against an attempted “coup d’état.”

Eight generals also expressed their “absolute loyalty and subordination” to Maduro while the Supreme Court – made up of regime loyalists – warned that “a coup is brewing in Venezuela with the consent of foreign governments.”

GALVANISED

Guaidó’s bold move this week has undoubtedly galvanised a previously divided opposition and even attempted to attract military support by offering an amnesty to anyone who disavows Maduro.

In a Skype interview with Univision late Thursday he went one step further by suggesting Maduro could also be offered amnesty if he agrees to step down. But such an option would have to be evaluated, he said, because Maduro is responsible for the deaths of protesters.

He continues to work on the military, though, and has tasked his supporters with handing out copies of the amnesty law the National Assembly is working on to soldiers tomorrow.

Analysts at the Eurasia Group consultancy noted that while international recognition of Guaidó as interim president cemented his position as the main opposition leader, his failure to win over the military meant Maduro’s fall “does not appear imminent.”

Venezuela’s descent into a political crisis began this week when a group of soldiers rose up against Maduro and sparked a number of protests leading up to Wednesday’s rival rallies that saw tens of thousands of people take to the streets. That was when Guaidó proclaimed himself acting president.

Guaidó told supporters yesterday that if he is arrested, they should “stay the course” and peacefully protest.

“They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming,” he declared, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

Maduro, in contrast, was his typically combative self.

“This is nothing more than a coup d’état, ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States,” Maduro said yesterday at the presidential palace before a room of journalists. “They intend to put a puppet government in Venezuela [and] destroy the state.” However, he added that he was still willing to talk with the opposition even if he “had to go naked.”

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