Venezuelan opposition leader Guaido claims support of soldiers in Caracas
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Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said Tuesday that a group of "brave soldiers" were supporting his uprising against President Nicolas Maduro in a video message broadcast on social media.
"Today brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men supporting the constitution have answered our call," Guaido said.
“He’s not saying that it’s the military that’s backing him; he’s saying that there are brave soldiers and brave patriots behind him,” said FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Philip Turle. “So we’ve got to be very clear about the fact that it’s still not the military that has decided to jump ship and back Guaido.”
However, Guaido was “unlikely to have gone ahead with this direction today if he wasn’t pretty sure of the support he was going to get from the soldiers,” Turle added.
Gunshots were later heard at a rally led by Guaido outside the air base in the Venezuelan capital, according to Reuters witnesses.
The witnesses added that men in military uniform, who were accompanying Guaido at the scene, were exchanging fire with soldiers acting in support of Maduro. The witnesses said the shots appeared to be live rounds.
"We are currently facing and deactivating a small group of treacherous military personnel who took positions in the Altamira distributor road (in Caracas) to promote a coup d'état," Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said on Twitter.
"We call on the people to remain on maximum alert to -- with our glorious National Bolivarian Armed Forces -- defeat the attempted coup and preserve peace," he said.
“This question of which side the military backs is important because this is a military regime,” Turle noted. “So if the military backs one candidate over the other, then the candidate it fails to back is no longer really in charge of the country.
'A major gamble'
“No matter what might happen today, this is a major gamble by Juan Guaido,” said FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Commentator Marc Perelman.
“We’ve seen this over the past few weeks,” Perelman continued. “There was an attempt to have humanitarian aid enter Venezuela through the Colombian and Brazilian borders; that was a failure. And now today, in the heart of Caracas, in the heart of a military base, Guaido is challenging Maduro by calling on the army to join him.”
Guaido appeared alongside high-profile opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez who had been put under home arrest by Maduro's regime but who announced he had been "freed" by soldiers supporting Guaido.
Lopez posted a picture on Twitter with men in uniform, and said it was taken at the Carlota military base.
"Venezuela: the definitive phase to end the usurpation, Operation Liberty, has begun," read the message.
Venezuela's Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez was quick to assert on Twitter that the situation in military barracks and bases in the country was "normal".
“I’ve seen pictures in the last few minutes of people demonstrating outside the military base in Maracaibo, the second city, but it’s not clear what the troops inside are doing,” added Colin Harding, director of specialist publication Latinform, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “A report from Maracaibo – which is where the main armoured brigade is – says that the chief of the main military arsenal has been arrested by more junior officers.”
‘A much bigger geopolitical standoff’
Tensions in Venezuela have been ratcheted up to a critical level this year, after Guaido, who is head of the opposition-ruled congress, announced January 23 that he was the acting president under the constitution, claiming that Maduro had been fraudulently re-elected last year.
The United States and major Latin American powers including Brazil, Peru and Chile swiftly backed Guaido, followed later on by the European Union. “Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operacion Libertad," tweeted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. "The US Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated," he wrote.
Nevertheless, Maduro – who since taking over from his late mentor Hugo Chavez in 2013 has presided over a catastrophic economic implosion – has been able to count on support from Russia and China, Venezuela's two biggest creditors, as well as an array of nations including Turkey, Iran and nearby Cuba.
In light of these conflicting views on Venezuela in the international community, “we’re not just talking about a skirmish within Venezuela, a standoff between Maduro and Guaido”, said Turle. “We’re talking about a much bigger geopolitical standoff between major powers, like the Guaido-supporting US and Maduro-supporting Russia.”
Although US President Donald Trump has repeatedly said "all options" are on the table regarding Venezuela -- including, implicitly, military action -- there has been no noticeable US military mobilisation.
Instead, Washington has upped the economic pressure, through sanctions aimed at Maduro's regime and by cutting sales of Venezuelan oil -- the South American country's main revenue earner.
It also warned against any attempt to arrest Guaido, who has been left free to roam Venezuela and hold rallies.
Maduro and his government have repeatedly accused the United States of trying to foment a coup, and blame the economic devastation in the country on the tightening US sanctions.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)