Nicolas Maduro regime buckles down in face of second day of protests in Venezuela
With the Pentagon closely watching the unfolding crisis, U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and his supporters struggled Wednesday to rally enough momentum on the streets of Caracas in their effort to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro.
A day after calling for both the populace and Venezuela’s military to rise up against Mr. Maduro, there were again large protests and counter-protests, but Mr. Guaido acknowledged that not enough of Mr. Maduro’s generals have deserted him so far to declare an outright victory.
“We have to acknowledge that yesterday there weren’t enough [military defectors],” he said as he addressed a group of supporters, according to wire service reports.
“We are not asking for a confrontation,” Mr. Guaido, the speaker of the opposition-dominated National Assembly who has declared himself “interim president,” added. “We are not asking for a confrontation among brothers, it’s the opposite.”
Although the Trump administration and more than 50 nations have backed Mr. Guaido’s claim to power, Diosdado Cabello, a Maduro ally and head of the ruling Socialist Party, mocked the opposition’s claims and insisted the armed forces remain loyal to the regime.
Speaking at a pro-Maduro rally Wednesday, Mr. Cabello said opposition leaders are now “walking like zombies” after failing to provoke the widespread uprising urged by Mr. Guaido on Tuesday morning, The Associated Press reported.
Across town at the Carlota air base near where Mr. Guaido made his surprise call Tuesday morning for a revolt, intense clashes between protesters and troops loyal to the government made clear the standoff would drag on, AP reported. State security agents launched tear gas and fired rubber bullets, while bands of mostly young men armed with makeshift shields threw rocks and set a motorcycle ablaze.
By late afternoon, many of the anti-government protesters in the capital appeared to be drifting home.
With U.S. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton and other top Trump aides turning up the rhetorical heat on Mr. Maduro and key allies such as Cuba and Russia, U.S. military officials said Wednesday they are monitoring the situation closely. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan canceled a planned trip to Europe to monitor events in the oil-rich South American nation.
Appearing before a congressional committee Wednesday, Mr. Shanahan insisted the military option remained on the table and said the Pentagon has done “exhausting planning, so there’s not a situation or scenario that we don’t have a contingency for.”
While there were clashes and clouds of tear gas again on the streets of Caracas on Wednesday, President Maduro mocked what he said was the failure of the opposition to turn out the massive streets protests Mr. Guaido call for the day before in announcing the “final phase” of the uprising to unseat the government.
“It was demonstrated that interference, coups and armed confrontation are not the way for our beloved Venezuela,” Mr. Maduro tweeted Wednesday. Mr. Maduro and his allies accuse the Trump administration of trying to engineer a coup.
Back in Washington, top Pentagon officials told Congress they hoped diplomatic and economic pressure could end the crisis, but said U.S. forces were prepared to play a role if ordered to.
“We’re doing what we can now to collect intelligence to make sure we have good visibility on what’s happening down in Venezuela,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday morning.
But Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, which would oversee any potential U.S. military operation in Venezuela, told the House Armed Services Committee that he has not received orders to pre-position troops.
Mr. Bolton earlier in the day said U.S. troops were “on the balls of their feet” prepared to take action if the situation deteriorated. The U.S. and its allies say Mr. Maduro’s 2018 reelection victory was so riddled with fraud that he is no longer the country’s legitimate leader.
Critics say Mr. Maduro’s policies have devastated Venezuela’s economy and sparked a humanitarian and refugee crisis that has destabilized virtually all of the country’s neighbors.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday and “urged Russia to cease support for Nicolas Maduro and join other nations,” according to a State Department spokesperson. He warned Mr. Lavrov that “intervention by Russia and Cuba is destabilizing for Venezuela and for the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship.”
Staff writers Guy Taylor and Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.