Venezuelan power struggle may be decided by military

Manuel Rueda and Edith M. Lederer
Associated Press

Caracas, Venezuela – The battle for control of Venezuela turned Sunday to the armed forces as President Nicolas Maduro, wearing tan military fatigues, attended army exercises, met with troops and watched as tanks fired into a hillside.

At the same time, supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaido handed out leaflets to soldiers, urging them to reject the socialist leader and explaining how they could be eligible for amnesty if they help return Venezuela to democracy.

“We are waiting for you, the soldiers of Venezuela,” Guaido told a news conference, urging the armed forces not to shoot fellow Venezuelans.

“We are waiting for you and the commitment you have to our constitution.”

Sunday’s dueling appeals to the military followed a tense week as Venezuela took center stage in a global debate over who had a legitimate claim to power in the South American nation.

Maduro broke relations with the United States on Wednesday after the Trump administration and many other nations in the region recognized Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, as Venezuela’s interim president, a move that Maduro denounced as a coup attempt.

Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, but the Trump administration said it wouldn’t comply, arguing that Maduro is no longer Venezuela’s legitimate president. That set the stage for a showdown at the hilltop U.S. Embassy compound Saturday night, when the deadline was to expire.

But as the sun set on Venezuela’s capital, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Maduro’s government was suspending the expulsion to provide a 30-day window for negotiations about setting up a “U.S. interests office” in Venezuela and a similar Venezuelan office in the United States. The U.S. and Cuba had a similar arrangement for decades before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations with the communist-run island.

The State Department did not confirm the Venezuelan government’s account, reiterating only that its priority remains the safety of its personnel and that it has no plans to close the embassy.

“Let me be 100 percent clear — President Trump and I fully expect that our diplomats will continue to receive protections provided under the Vienna Convention,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the U.N. Security Council at an emergency session called Saturday to discuss the Venezuela crisis. “Do not test the United States on our resolve to protect our people.”

At the meeting, critics and supporters of Maduro’s government faced off in a reflection of the world’s deep divisions over Venezuela, which is mired in political confrontation as well as an economic collapse that has caused millions to flee the country.

During the debate, which was requested by the U.S., Pompeo urged all nations to end Venezuela’s “nightmare” and support Guaido.

“Now is the time for every other nation to pick a side,” Pompeo said. “No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”

Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the Trump administration of trying “to engineer a coup” against Maduro. He said Venezuela doesn’t threaten international peace and security, and he accused “extremist opponents” of Maduro’s government of choosing “maximum confrontation,” including the artificial creation of a parallel government.

Nebenzia urged Pompeo to say whether the U.S. would turn to military force.

“I am not going to speculate or hypothesize on what the U.S. will do next,” Pompeo later told reporters who asked for a response.

Pompeo was accompanied to New York by Elliott Abrams, who was named a day earlier as the U.S. special representative for Venezuela.

On his first day on the job, Abrams met with exiled leaders of Venezuela’s opposition. He also spoke by phone with Guaido and reaffirmed U.S. support, said Kimberly Breier, the current assistant secretary of state for the region.

The Security Council did not take action on the Venezuelan crisis because of the divisions, with the five veto-holding permanent members unable to unite behind a shared position.

France and Britain joined Spain and Germany in turning up the pressure on Maduro, saying they would follow the U.S. and others in recognizing Guaido as president unless Venezuela calls a new presidential election within eight days.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said that if there is no announcement of a new election, the 28-nation bloc “will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza dismissed the deadline.

“Europe is giving us eight days?” he asked the council. “Where do you get that you have the power to establish a deadline or an ultimatum to a sovereign people?”

Guaido says he is acting in accordance with two articles of the constitution that give the National Assembly president the right to hold power temporarily and call new elections.

While the council debated, Venezuela’s military attache in Washington posted a video saying he had broken with Maduro and now would report to Guaido.

“The armed forces have a fundamental role to play in the restoration of democracy,” Col. Jose Luis Silva said.

Guaido celebrated Silva’s decision.

“We welcome him and everyone who with honesty want to follow the constitution and the will of the Venezuelan people,” he said on social media.

Venezuela’s top commanders have pledged loyalty to Maduro’s government since Guaido declared himself interim leader, asserting that Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent.

But support for Maduro’s rule is weaker among the military’s rank and file, whose households are suffering from widespread food shortages and hyperinflation like their civilian counterparts. Last week, a small National Guard unit stole a stockpile of weapons in what it said was an attempt to oust Maduro. The uprising was quelled and 25 guardsmen arrested.

The standoff has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that rights groups say has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands take to the street demanding Maduro step down.