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Sun 26
Clashes erupt in Venezuela as opposition leader Guaidó announces ‘final phase’ to remove Maduro

Clashes erupt in Venezuela as opposition leader Guaidó announces ‘final phase’ to remove Maduro

Dozens had been injured by rubber bullets and tear gas. An armored vehicle had run into a crowd of Guaidó supporters in Caracas

The Washington Post

Violent clashes erupted in the Venezuelan capital on Tuesday after opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched what appeared to be a military-backed challenge to President Nicolás Maduro, summoning thousands of people to the streets to demonstrate against the socialist leader.

By early afternoon, dozens of people had been injured by rubber bullets and tear gas, according to officials at local hospitals. An armored vehicle had run into a crowd of Guaidó supporters in Caracas. And a colonel loyal to Maduro had been shot in the neck, though the extent of his injuries was unclear, according to the Venezuela defense minister.

At least 11 people were detained, according to a local organization that tracks political prisoners.

The day began with a dawn video address by Guaidó, in which he was surrounded by armed men in military uniforms and urged other troops to join the final stage of “Operation Liberty” to force Maduro from power.

“People of Venezuela, the end of usurpation has arrived,” Guaidó said. “At this moment, I am with the main military units of our armed forces, starting the final phase of Operation Liberty. People of Venezuela, we will go to the street with the armed forces to continue taking the streets until we consolidate the end of usurpation, which is already irreversible.”

Maduro insisted that the military remains loyal to him.

“Steel nerves,” he wrote in a tweet. “I have talked to commanders in all the regions of the country and they’ve manifested their total loyalty to the People, the Constitution, and the Homeland. I call for maximum popular mobilization to ensure the victory of peace. We will win!”

Maduro did not appear in public Tuesday. His whereabouts could not be determined.

At the White House, national security adviser John Bolton reiterated U.S. support for Guaidó. Using language that officials have used for several weeks, he said the United States favors a “peaceful transfer of power,” but “all options are on the table.” He declined to elaborate.

The day’s events follow weeks of tension in what was once South America’s wealthiest country but that has since been consumed by hyperinflation, rising crime and government malfunction.

Maduro’s communications minister tweeted early this morning that the government was moving to confront a “coup” and was attempting to “deactivate” what he described as a “reduced group of military officials who are traitors” and who have positioned themselves in the Altamira district of the capital.

Soon, internet services in Venezuela were “restricted,” according to NetBlocks, an organization that tracks connection and electricity services, and people were heading out onto the streets.

Outside the La Carlota military base in the Caracas district of Altamira, where Guaidó first asked supporters to assemble, supporters loyal to Guaidó were met by tear gas canisters. It was not immediately clear who fired the tear gas. Troops supporting Guaidó appeared to be wearing blue armbands. Video showed tear gas arcing over a bridge in Caracas congested with protesters and troops loyal to Maduro shooting into the sky.

Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, said Guaidó’s supporters were trying to “fill the country with violence” and warned them to stay away from Palacio de Miraflores, the Venezuelan president’s offices, where supporters of Maduro have asked loyalists to congregate.

“Anyone who arrives to Miraflores through violence, will be overcome through violence,” he said in a television interview.

Once supporters are gathered at Miraflores, “we are going to counterattack,” said Diosdado Cabello, a leading pro-Maduro politician.

Guaidó left La Carlota before 10 a.m. and went to nearby Plaza Altamira. Surrounded by troops, he led supporters in singing the Venezuelan national anthem. By late morning, around 5,000 people had arrived, some chanting, “Yes, we can,” as more streamed in. About a dozen troops were present, wearing blue armbands to show support for Guaidó.

“Today, it’s clear that the Armed forces are with Venezuela and not with the dictator,” Guaidó said at the rally. “The coup is being led by Maduro.”

Guaidó and the military men protecting him moved toward west Caracas, once a stronghold of support for Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, but which has increasingly turned against the socialist government this year.

As of the afternoon, Guaidó and his supporters had no plan to descend upon the presidential palace, a Guaidó spokesman said.

In Guaidó’s morning video, he called for “nonviolent” action, but his actions have nonetheless posed perhaps the most significant military challenge to Maduro’s power since Guaidó – the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly – invoked constitutional powers, called Maduro a usurper and claimed the true mantle of leadership as Venezuela‘s interim president. His claim has since been recognized by nearly 60 nations, including the United States, which vigorously backed him on Tuesday and has called on Venezuela‘s military to reject Maduro.

U.S. officials expressed support for the opposition in a series of tweets.

“To @jguaido, 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!” Vice President Pence wrote. “America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored. Vayan con dios!”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also offered support.

“We’re very, very hopeful that this will be the first step in leading to the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” Pompeo said after leaving a lunch with Senate Republicans. He declined to specify what support the Trump administration has offered.

The Treasury Department released a statement, offering “sanctions relief” to officials aligned with Maduro who switch loyalties to Guaidó.

Bolivia and Cuba, whose leftist governments support Maduro, condemned what they called a coup. Russia and China have also backed the leftist president’s government.

The stakes of Tuesday’s demonstrations couldn’t be higher, analysts said.

“If Guaidó and Lopez fail to split the military and rally top brass to their cause, then a big question is what happens to them personally, and to the opposition cause more broadly,” said Shannon O’Neil, a Venezuela expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. They could end up tonight in jail or worse. They are taking a huge leap today.”

At the La Carlota base on Tuesday – a day before a planned opposition protest – Guaidó stood in front of Leopoldo López, his political mentor and a longtime opposition figure who had been placed under house arrest. López reportedly escaped with the help of guards, and his presence at the base signified a defiant break from government authority.

Venezuela: the final phase for the end of usurpation has arrived, Operation Freedom,” López tweeted. “I have been freed by military men of the constitution, and of President Guaidó. I’m at the La Carlota Base. We have to mobilize. It’s time to conquer freedom. Strength and Faith.”

Guaidó said he would release a list of names of military officials who support him. “We have generals, lieutenants,” he said.

La Carlota – officially, Generalísimo Francisco de Miranda Air Base – was built in 1946 in the eastern part of Caracas. Its airport has been closed to the public since 2005.

Maduro’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, called on Venezuelans “to stay on maximum alert with the glorious Bolivarian armed forces to overcome this coup attempt and preserve the peace.”

“The assassin ultraright joined this attempt, announcing its violent agenda months ago,” Rodríguez tweeted.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has strongly backed Guaidó, issued a call for the military to rise up: “This is the moment for those military officers in #Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President @jguaido, in this effort to restore democracy,” he tweeted. “You can write history in the hours & days ahead.”

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the New York-based Americas Society and Council of the Americas, said Guaidó’s action was a “bold, dramatic effort to force the issue, recapture initiative and require the Maduro regime to act.”

He said that just the fact that López was at large could be a big challenge for the government.

“The regime is afraid of López, which is why they have kept him under arrest,” Farnsworth said. “He is Guaidó’s patron and would be a key figure in a free Venezuela. ‎ Springing him from arrest and engaging directly with the military will present the regime with a real dilemma: Let him remain free in defiance of the regime to rally popular support, or attempt to jail him again, which the people may very well resist.”