Venezuela's Maduro Clings to Power, Urges Military to Oppose 'Coup Plotters'

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2019-05-02

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Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro clung to power Thursday, calling on the country's armed forces to oppose "any coup plotter" after opposition leader Juan Guaido failed to win defections from military leaders.

After two days of massive street demonstrations against his government, the embattled Maduro said at a televised event with the military high command, "Yes, we are in combat; keep morale high in this fight to disarm any traitor, any coup plotter."

Guaido, supported by a small contingent of defecting security forces, earlier in the week called for a massive uprising against Maduro. Thousands of people rallied in the streets of the capital, Caracas, on Tuesday and Wednesday, with some hurling rocks at security forces, who occasionally fired back with live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas. Four people were killed in the skirmishes, and dozens were injured.

However, there appeared to be no mass defections of military leaders to Guaido, the National Assembly leader who declared himself as the country's interim president in January and has been recognized by the United States and about 50 other countries as the legitimate leader of the South American nation.

Guaido said staggered industrial action would start Thursday, leading to a general strike. But the streets of Caracas were calm.

U.S. action

Top U.S. officials are continuing to voice their support for the uprising against Maduro. At a national prayer service at the White House, President Donald Trump said, "I'd like to begin by sending our prayers to the people of Venezuela in their righteous struggle for freedom. The brutal repression of the Venezuelan people must end, and it must end soon."

He added, "People are starving. They have no food, they have no water, and this was once one of the wealthiest countries in the world. So we wish them well, we'll be there to help and we are there to help."

Trump's remarks came a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Trump is prepared to intervene militarily in Venezuela. "If that is what is required, this is what the United States will do," Pompeo said.

But Pompeo and Trump have not specified what would prompt the U.S. to send troops to Venezuela.

The strike is Guaido's latest strategy in his effort to force Maduro from power through a popular uprising.

Millions of Venezuelans — exhausted by out-of-control inflation, severe food and fuel shortages, a lack of medical care, and periodic blackouts — have fled the country. As head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Guaido used the constitution to declare Maduro's presidency illegitimate, saying Maduro's election in December was a fraud.

Maduro has accused Guaido of trying to carry out a U.S.- and Colombian-supported coup and says the opposition will fail.

He said demonstrators will be prosecuted "for the serious crimes that have been committed against the constitution, the rule of law and the right to peace."

Wednesday's confrontations between opposition supporters and Venezuelan troops ended with one woman dead after she was shot in the head during a protest in the capital.​

Role of Russia

​Meanwhile, the unrest is turning into a battleground of rhetoric between the United States and Russia.

After a telephone conversation Wednesday between Pompeo and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russian official warned of "the most drastic of consequences" if the United States continues what it calls "aggressive steps."

The State Department was more muted, saying only that Russian and Cuban intervention is "destabilizing for Venezuela."

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said, "This is our hemisphere. It's not where the Russians ought to be interfering. This is a mistake on their part. It's not going to lead to an improvement of relations."

Earlier in the week, Bolton called on top Venezuelan officials to join with Guaido to overthrow Maduro in a peaceful takeover.

Cuban troops

Meanwhile, a top Cuban diplomat has denied U.S. accusations that thousands of Cuban troops are on the ground in Venezuela.

"Cuba does not participate in military operations nor in security operations in Venezuela," Cuban chief of U.S. Affairs Carlos Fernandez de Cossio told the Associated Press.

He said the 20,000 Cubans in Venezuela are primarily medical workers.

But he did say, as hemispheric partners, Cuba and Venezuela have the sovereign right to military and intelligence cooperation.

Cuba and Russia are longtime allies of Venezuela and its socialist governments. Russia has supplied economic support and military equipment to the Maduro government while Venezuela has sent billions of dollars in oil to Cuba in exchange for medical aid.