Venezuela awaits more protests after a day of turmoil

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — He called it the moment for Venezuelans to reclaim their democracy once and for all. But as the hours dragged on, opposition leader Juan Guaidó stood alone on a highway overpass with the same small cadre of soldiers with whom he launched a bold effort to spark a military uprising and settle Venezuela’s agonizing power struggle.

Like past attempts to oust President Nicolas Maduro, the opposition seemed outmaneuvered again Tuesday. What Guaidó dubbed “Operation Freedom” triggered a familiar pattern of security forces using repressive tactics to crush small pockets of stone-throwing youths while millions of Venezuelans watched the drama unfold with a mix of fear and exasperation.

The opposition’s hoped-for split in the military didn’t emerge, a plane that the United States claimed was standing by to ferry Maduro into exile never took off and by nightfall one of the government’s bravest opponents, who defied house arrest to join the insurrection, had quietly sought refuge with his family in a foreign embassy.

Guaidó, the telegenic 35-year-old leader of the opposition-dominated congress who is recognized by the U.S. and over 50 nations as Venezuela’s rightful president, nonetheless pressed forward in calling for a new round of mass street protests Wednesday. Opposition forces are hoping that Venezuelans angered by broadcast images of armored vehicles plowing into protesters and fed up with their nation’s dire humanitarian crisis will fill streets across the nation.

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets with a small contingent of heavily armed troops early Tuesday in a bold and risky call for the military to rise up and oust socialist leader Nicolas Maduro. (April 30)
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets with a small contingent of heavily armed troops early Tuesday in a bold and risky call for the military to rise up and oust socialist leader Nicolas Maduro. (April 30)

In one blow to Maduro, the head of Venezuela’s feared intelligence agency announced that he was breaking ranks with the embattled socialist leader.

“We need to keep up the pressure,” Guaidó said. “We will be in the streets.”

The latest chapter in Venezuela’s political upheaval marks the most serious threat yet to Maduro’s contested rule. The leader, who has been relying on support from Russia and China, was largely absent as events unfolded Tuesday. He finally emerged late in the evening to call the small-scale uprising a failed U.S.-backed coup attempt.

A man who was run over by a Bolivarian National Guard vehicle is aided by fellow anti-government protesters. (AP Photo/Boris Vergara)

Speaking on state television, Maduro said that the unrest had been quelled and that Venezuela wouldn’t succumb to right-wing forces intent on “submitting our country to a neocolonial economic domination model and enslaving Venezuela.”

“Now you can see a Venezuela largely in peace,” he proclaimed.

Venezuelans waited to see if that remained the case Wednesday.

Giancarlo Morelli, with the British analysis group Economist Intelligence Unit, said the uprising will likely force Maduro to make a decision on Guaido’s fate and he will face perils whatever path he takes.

“Failing to arrest Mr. Guaido would be perceived as an important sign for weakness from Mr. Maduro,” Morelli said. “But arresting Mr. Guaido risks a strong counter-reaction from the U.S.,” which has been racheting up sanctions.

The competing quests to solidify a hold on power produced one of the most stunning days yet for a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves but is struggling with an economic contraction that is worse than the U.S. Great Depression.

The turmoil Tuesday began when Guaidó, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armored crowd-control vehicles, released a three-minute video shot near the Carlota air base.

In a surprise, Leopoldo Lopez, Guaido’s political mentor and the nation’s most-prominent opposition activist, stood alongside him. Detained in 2014 for leading a previous round of anti-government unrest, Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces following an order from Guaidó.

Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, center, is greeted by anti-government supporter. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

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

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

A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, reappearing later with Guaidó at a plaza a few blocks away. A smaller group of masked youths stayed behind on the highway, lobbing rocks and gasoline bombs toward the air base and setting a government bus on fire.

“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna worn by the few dozen insurgent soldiers.

Amid the mayhem, several armored utility vehicles careened over a berm and drove at full speed into the crowd. Two demonstrators, lying on the ground with their heads and legs bloodied, were rushed away on a motorcycle as the armored vehicles sped away dodging gasoline bombs thrown by the demonstrators.

The head of a medical center near the site of the street battles said doctors were treating over 50 people, about half of them with injuries suffered from rubber bullets. At least one person had been shot with live ammunition. The Venezuelan human rights group Provea said a 24-year-old man was fatally shot during an anti-government protest in the city of La Victoria.

Later Tuesday, Lopez and his family sought refuge in the Chilean ambassador’s residence and later moved to the Spanish Embassy. There were also reports that 25 soldiers who had been with Guaidó fled to Brazil’s diplomatic mission.

An anti-government protester walks near a bus that was set on fire by opponents of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro during clashes between rebel and loyalist soldiers in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Amid the unrest, Maduro’s military commanders went on state television to proclaim their loyalty. Flanked by top generals, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López condemned Guaido’s move as a “terrorist” act and “coup attempt” that was bound to fail like past uprisings.

“Those who try to take Miraflores with violence will be met with violence,” he said, referring to the presidential palace where hundreds of government supporters, some of them brandishing firearms, gathered in response to a call to defend Maduro.

But in a possible sign that Maduro’s inner circle could be fracturing, the head of Venezuela’s secret police wrote a letter breaking ranks with the embattled leader.

In a letter directed to the Venezuelan people, Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the head of Venezuela’s feared SEBIN intelligence agency, said he had always been loyal to Maduro but now it is time to “rebuild the country.” He said corruption has become so rampant that “many high-ranking public servants practice it like a sport.”

“The hour has arrived for us to look for other ways of doing politics,” Figuera wrote.

The authenticity of the letter circulating on social media was confirmed by a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to divulge details. He said the general’s wife was outside Venezuela.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed Maduro had an airplane “on the tarmac” Tuesday morning and was ready to flee but was dissuaded by “Russians.” Maduro ridiculed that idea in his TV speech, adding: “Mr. Pompeo, what lack of seriousness.”

President Nicolas Maduro, left, flanked by Venezuela’s defense minister and military commanders, delivers televised address. (Miraflores Press Office via AP)

Most shops and businesses were closed and the streets of the capital unusually quiet as people huddled at home to await the outcome of the drama.

Guaidó said he called for the uprising to restore a constitutional order broken when Maduro was sworn in earlier this year for a second term following a presidential election boycotted by the opposition and considered illegitimate by dozens of countries.

As events unfolded, governments around the world expressed support for Guaidó while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontation.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said the Trump administration was waiting for three key officials, including Maduro’s defense minister and head of the supreme court, to act on what he said were private pledges to remove Maduro. “All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Bolton said.

Thus far, Maduro has refrained from detaining Guaidó, but the president said Tuesday night that Venezuela’s chief prosecutor was assigning three deputies to investigate the uprising and promised there “will be criminal charges.”

“What do they want, a military battle?” Maduro asked, seated beside the Venezuelan flag. “Does that benefit Venezuela, democracy, peace?”