Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Clashes Flare After Venezuela Opposition Leader Calls For Military Uprising

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Anti-government protesters and law enforcement officers clashed in Caracas on Tuesday after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó appeared alongside soldiers at a military base and called for the population to rise up against the president.

“Today, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men attached to the Constitution have followed our call,” Mr. Guaidó said in a video posted on social media, speaking from Generalissimo Francisco de Miranda Air Base, a military airport in Caracas known as La Carlota, in a direct challenge to the government.

He has called before for the military to rise up against the government of President Nicolás Maduro, but doing so flanked by men in uniform, at a base in the heart of the capital, was a new step. With few exceptions, the military has so far protected Mr. Maduro.

Mr. Guaidó claimed that “the definitive end of the usurpation starts today,” but it was not clear how many civilians or soldiers would heed him.

“We are counting on the people of Venezuela today,” he said in the video. “The armed forces are clearly on the side of the people.”

Jorge Rodríguez, the government’s information minister, said on Twitter that government was “confronting and deactivating a small group of military traitors” that he said had taken over the base “to promote a coup.” He blamed the “coup-mongering ultraright,” which he said had pushed for a violent agenda for months in Venezuela.

Behind Mr. Guaidó, who has described himself since January as the country’s interim president, stood Leopoldo López, a member of his party who received a nearly 14-year sentence after staging protests in 2014 and has been held by the government under house arrest. Mr. López did not speak in the video but issued messages on Twitter saying that he had been released by soldiers.

“I was released by the military on the order of the Constitution and President Guaidó,” he wrote in his first Twitter posts since 2017. “Everyone mobilize. It’s time to conquer for freedom.”

Speaking to reporters near the airstrip, Mr. Guaidó said that a wide swath of the military now backed him, including top commanders, but he declined to release their names.

“There are generals, there are lieutenant colonels, there are majors, there are colonels — it’s a reflection of the country,” he said.

Mr. Guaidó said he had had no communication with Mr. Maduro.

The government and supporters of Mr. Guaidó appeared to be bracing for further confrontation. Pro-government armed groups and protesters had encircled Mr. Maduro’s presidential palace by midmorning.

In other parts of the city, national guard soldiers and policemen fought against anti-government protesters who were beginning to assemble for a protest in response to Mr. Guaidó’s call. Witnesses said tear gas canisters could be seen detonating near the military base.

Videos posted on social media showed a crowd of protesters approaching the air base, waving Venezuelan flags.

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

Miriam Segovia, 52, another protester near the 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.”

Battered by mismanagement, American sanctions and corruption, the Venezuelan economy has been in steep decline since 2014. Millions of people have emigrated, and the roughly 30 million who remain are plagued by hyperinflation and shortages of medicines, food, electricity and jobs.

Mr. Maduro, who has been in office since 2013, won re-election last year in a contest that was widely seen as fraudulent. In January, the National Assembly, controlled by the opposition and led by Mr. Guaidó, declared the election and the government illegitimate, leading Mr. Guaidó to claim to be the rightful, transitional leader.

More than 50 countries, including the United States and most of its close allies, recognized him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.

On Tuesday morning, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated American support for the opposition, posting a message of encouragement on Twitter: “To @jgauido, 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!”

The appearance of Mr. Guaidó and Mr. López on Tuesday, with the apparent support of some national guardsmen, prompted immediate rumors in Caracas that the armed forces could be shifting loyalties.

A central pillar of Mr. Guaidó’s strategy has been luring the military to his side, and a number of officers have defected. But that has never amounted to enough for a full-scale uprising against Mr. Maduro.

In January, shortly before Mr. Guaidó declared himself president, members of the national guard pledged allegiance to him at a base in Caracas. The government stormed the base and arrested some of the soldiers.

One of the soldiers later appeared in a Colombian border city seeking asylum, where he joined several thousands of rank-and-file soldiers who had defected.

Please check back for updates.

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