CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and key military figures made a show of unity in a television broadcast on Thursday, seeking to reject claims by the United States and the opposition that the armed forces high command was prepared to turn on him.
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro waves as he walks next to Venezuela’s Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez and Remigio Ceballos, Strategic Operational Commander of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, during a ceremony at a military base in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS
Flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and military operations chief Remigio Ceballos, Maduro said in a dawn national address posted first to social media that the armed forces were “united, cohesive and subordinate to their constitutional mandate,” just two days after opposition leader Juan Guaido urged the military to join him to oust Maduro.
Venezuelans heeded a call from Guaido to take to the streets on Wednesday in a bid to force Maduro from power, but there was little concrete sign of change in a crisis that increasingly looks like a political stalemate.
Guaido, the head of the opposition-run National Assembly, is recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state by the United States, the European Union and others, while Maduro is backed by countries including Russia, China and Cuba.
U.S. officials have said the military high command was in discussions with the Supreme Court and representatives of Guaido over Maduro’s exit, which would involve guarantees that members of the armed forces could keep their jobs in a transition government.
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, said Maduro cannot trust his top military leaders.
“Even when they say, ‘I am totally loyal, Mr. President,’ he cannot count on that,” Abrams told broadcaster VPI on Wednesday.
“Almost everyone was involved with that, and so Maduro has to know that the high command is not truly loyal and they want a change.”
The heightened tensions in the OPEC nation come more than three months after Guaido invoked the country’s constitution to assume the interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate. Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking a coup.
Guaido’s call for an uprising on Tuesday, through a video in which he was surrounded by dozens of soldiers he said had joined his side, did not lead to immediate signs of a change.
But it led to two straight days of massive street demonstrations across the country that left hundreds injured or arrested, and four dead due to security forces’ efforts to quell protests, according to rights groups.
Abrams’ comments were not the first time U.S. officials had raised doubts about the loyalty of Maduro’s inner circle. U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Tuesday said Padrino, along with the supreme court’s chief justice and the commander of the presidential guard, had told the opposition Maduro needed to leave power.
“Do not come to buy us with a dishonest offer, as if we do not have dignity,” Padrino said in Thursday’s video while standing by Maduro’s side. “Those who have fallen and sold their souls are no longer soldiers, they cannot be with us.”
Reporting by Mayela Armas, Vivian Sequera and Luc Cohen; Editing by Alistair Bell