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Venezuelans take to the streets again in anti-Maduro protests

Luis Robayo, AFP | Opposition leader and self-proclaimed "acting president" Juan Guaido marches alongside protesters outside Venezuela's Central University in Caracas, on January 30, 2019

Venezuelans opposing President Nicolas Maduro's government on Wednesday were heeding a call by Juan Guaido, the country's self-proclaimed interim president, to take to the streets, braving arrests and crackdowns by security officials.

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People took to the streets in the capital Caracas and various other cities, banging pots, blowing whistles and horns, and carrying banners that read: "Armed forces, regain your dignity", "Maduro usurper", "Guaido, president" and "No to the dictatorship".

"Don't shoot people who are making demands also for your family," Guaido said in a message to the military delivered from the central university in Caracas.

The man challenging Maduro's claim to the presidency had urged Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours beginning at noon in the first mass mobilisation since he declared himself the nation's rightful leader a week ago during another round of big protests.

"Venezuela is set on change," Guaido said.

The surge in political maneuvering has seen two dozen nations, including the US and several Latin American countries, back Guaido. The Trump administration has imposed sanctions that could starve the already distressed nation of billions in oil revenue.

"Large protests all across Venezuela today against Maduro. The fight for freedom has begun!" US President Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday after speaking with Guaido.

France said on Wednesday that Maduro appeared not to be heeding calls for new presidential elections and that European foreign ministers would discuss the next steps in Bucharest on Thursday.

Along with other EU members, France has said it would recognise Guaido as the country's rightful leader if Maduro failed to call a new vote within eight days.

‘Vietnam in Latin America’

But Maduro is holding firm and refusing to step down. He huddled with military troops early Wednesday and has overseen military exercises in recent days while seeking to consolidate support from the armed forces.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 Tuesday, Guaido said he plans to reach out to the country's powerful armed forces and appeal to them to help "build a democracy, rebuild our country and ensure a transition government”.

He also wrote in a New York Times article published Wednesday that the support of the military was key to efforts to oust Maduro, saying secret meetings had been held with members of the security forces.

Maduro however has accused Washington of staging a coup and pressed his case directly to the American people in a short video shot in the presidential palace. US President Donald Trump and "this group of extremists" have their eyes on Venezuela's vast oil reserves, said Maduro, warning that the US is about to repeat a bloody chapter in its history.

"We won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America," Maduro said. "If the aim of the United States is to invade, they'll have a Vietnam worse than can be imagined."

In an interview with Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday, Maduro said he was "willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela's peace and its future... It would be very good to conduct parliamentary elections at an earlier stage".

The opposition however rejected his offer, citing many instances in the past when Maduro has simply talked about talks to try to defuse a crisis situation.

France on Wednesday said Maduro had not responded to an EU demand for elections.

Russia is one of the staunchest supporters of Maduro and has offered to mediate in the crisis.

Top court bars Guaido from leaving Venezuela

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court barred Guaido from leaving the country after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced that he was opening a criminal investigation of Maduro's foe, who heads the opposition-controlled congress. Saab is a key Maduro ally and the high court is stacked with Maduro loyalists.

The court move came after US National Security Adviser John Bolton warned that the Maduro government would face "serious consequences" if Guaido is harmed.

Guaido has thus far managed to avoid arrest and the Supreme Court did not strip him of his legislative immunity, though the new investigation could signal that Maduro's administration is moving to take a more punitive approach.

Speaking Tuesday outside the National Assembly, Guaido said he was aware of personal risks.

"I don't underestimate the threat of persecution at the moment, but here we are," he said.

Guaido gets control of Venezuela’s US bank accounts

The US has emerged as Guaido's most powerful ally, announcing on Tuesday that it was giving him control of Venezuela's US bank accounts.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Guaido has the authority to take control of any Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other US-insured banks. He said the certification would "help Venezuela's legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people".

The US on Monday imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA), that could potentially deprive the Maduro government of $11 billion in export revenues over the next year.

On Wednesday, Bolton announced that Washington had sanctioned Nicaragua's Albanisa, a private company that imports and sells Venezuelan petroleum products.

"Through sanctioning PdVSA, the United States has also sanctioned Nicaragua's ALBANISA, the government's joint venture with PdVSA and slush fund of the corrupt regime of Daniel Ortega," said Bolton in a tweet.

Venezuela's economy is already ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread food and medical shortages that have driven millions of people to leave the country.

Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and vowed to challenge the US in court. "With these measures, they intend to rob us," he said.

Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido declared during a huge opposition rally in Caracas that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro's "dictatorship".

Under Venezuela's constitution, the head of the National Assembly is empowered to take on the duties of the chief executive under a range of circumstances in which the presidency is vacated. The opposition argues Maduro's re-election last May was a sham.

The previously little-known Guaido has re-invigorated the opposition movement by pushing for three immediate goals: to end Maduro's "usurpation" of power, establish a transitional government and hold a new presidential election.

Mass arrests

The UN human rights office says security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government protests last week – the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years. It says more than 40 people are believed to have been killed.

Maduro's allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.

Socialist party leaders have been organising counter-protests by thousands of Maduro supporters in different parts of the country.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP)

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