CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro, although there was little sign of defection from the armed forces leadership and isolated clashes fizzled out.
Several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas early on Tuesday, while large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent.
But an uneasy peace had returned by Tuesday afternoon and there did not appear to be signs of an immediate attempt by the opposition to take power through military force.
Officials from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration said three top Maduro loyalists had apparently been in talks with the opposition and indicated they would support a peaceful transition of power.
“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, while U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.
They named the three as Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala.
Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”
Earlier on Tuesday, Padrino said in a broadcast, flanked by uniformed men, that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.
Guaido, in Twitter posts, wrote that he had begun the “final phase” of his campaign to topple Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the armed forces to back him ahead of May Day mass street protests planned for Wednesday.
“The moment is now!” he wrote. “The future is ours: the people and Armed Forces united.”
National Assembly leader Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests by Venezuela’s opposition.
Tuesday’s move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks sufficient support. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.
Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.
Thirty-six people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets, said Doctor Maggi Santi of the Salud Chacao health center in eastern Caracas.
Maduro, a former bus driver who took office after the death of political mentor President Hugo Chavez in 2013, said he had spoken with military leaders and that they had shown him “their total loyalty.”
“Nerves of steel!” Maduro wrote on Twitter. “I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace. We will win!”
Oil prices topped $73 before easing, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by the U.S. sanctions and an economic crisis.
Guaido, in a video on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.
Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.
Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.
The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.
“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike in a protest on Tuesday.
The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had been consulted or had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.
Accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro.
Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.
“No. This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.
Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido’s push and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared to be “weak.”
Maduro’s foreign allies include Russia, China and Cuba.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.
The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, speaking in Brazil, said: “What we don’t want is a military escalation, but rather a political solution.”
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she had requested an emergency video conference meeting of the Lima Group regional bloc later on Tuesday to discuss the events.
Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis