Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declares ‘final phase’ of effort to overthrow president Maduro

Venezuela's National Assembly head Juan Guaido, speaks to the crowd during a mass opposition rally against leader Nicolas Maduro in which he declared himself the country's "acting president", on the anniversary of a 1958 uprising that overthrew military dictatorship, in Caracas on January 23, 2019. (Getty Images)

VENEZUELA — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido made his boldest attempt yet to seize power from President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday, announcing an uprising alongside a group of soldiers in the capital Caracas and unleashing a day of street protests and skirmishes.

In a dawn address — in which he was flanked by men in military fatigues and armored vehicles — Guaido declared he was “beginning the final phase of Operation Freedom,” an escalation of his bid to oust Maduro, which started in January.

Guaido, who is head of Venezuela’s National Assembly and has been recognized as president by dozens of other countries, has led months of protest against the government, but Tuesday marked his most successful attempt yet to involve the military in the removal of the Venezuelan leader.

Speaking alongside opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez — freed from house arrest by defecting soldiers — Guaido declared the “start of the end of the usurpation” in a video filmed outside La Carlota military airbase in Caracas early on Tuesday.

Opposition protesters massed near the airbase throughout the day, and there were confrontations between Guaido’s military supporters and Maduro regime loyalists.

In live agency video from the ground, opposition protesters appeared to be throwing objects at military vehicles immediately before one ploughed straight into the crowd, knocking a number of people down.

Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez called Guaido’s action a “coup” on Twitter, adding that the government is “deactivating a small number of traitorous military personnel.”

“We call on the people to remain in maximum alert so that, together with the glorious Bolivian armed forces, we defeat this attempted coup and preserve peace. We will win,” he said.

Military involvement

Later in the day, Guaido made his way to Plaza Altamira, the center of the city’s opposition heartland. “For many years we have talked to the armed forces and today it’s clear to us that the armed forces are with the Venezuelan people, who are not with a dictator,” Guaido told a heaving crowd of supporters, who were cheering “Yes, we can.”

Using a megaphone, the 35-year-old said the demonstration was peaceful, “in accordance with our constitution,” and it was Maduro who was carrying out a coup.

“The coup d’etat is being done at a stage by those who use paramilitaries to attack us. The soldiers are here to defend our people,” he added.

Earlier, Guaido had told CNN that Maduro had lost the support of the country’s military. “It’s great news for the entire country that the military of Venezuela’s armed forces have taken this step. They were an important part of this. This was fundamental not only for a transitioning, but to recover Venezuela’s sovereignty,” he said.

Guaido had previously called for nationwide demonstrations on May 1. On Tuesday, he said his announcement signaled the start of that protest a day early. That came after he spent the last few weeks visiting towns and cities outside Caracas, drawing large crowds in his bid to pressure Maduro to step down.

It is unclear, however, whether Guaido’s move will gain traction or how much military support he has. “The situation is under control,” Maduro’s Communications Vice Minister Isbemar Jimenez told CNN on Tuesday. “All military garrisons support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.”

Maduro said in a tweet that regional defense bodies had expressed “total loyalty.” He matched Guaido’s call for supporters, imploring the public to rally for “maximum popular mobilization.”

His vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, called for people to head to Miraflores, the presidential palace, and “defend peace.”

As Guaido’s supporters massed around La Carlota airbase, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that the American government “fully supports” the operation launched by the opposition leader.

United States Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Maduro, urged Venezuela’s military to support Guaido on Twitter.

“This is the moment for those military officers in #Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President (Guaido’s) in this effort to restore democracy. You can write history in the hours & days ahead,” he wrote.

Guaido emerged from obscurity when he was named president of the National Assembly on January 5. His arrival to the political scene has re-energized opposition to Maduro’s government, which foreign powers and domestic rivals say was returned to power in a sham election last year.

He has promised a transitional government and free elections to end the rule of the socialist Maduro regime, which has overseen the once-wealthy oil nation’s descent into economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis.

After Guaido declared himself acting president in January, Maduro’s administration repeatedly blamed the US of orchestrating a coup to remove him.

The president has denied a humanitarian crisis exists in the country — refusing to accept much-needed foreign aid, while also blaming blackouts on a terror attack and American sabotage.

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