New Caracas protests as US and Russia spar over Venezuela
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May Day clashes between opposition supporters and Venezuela's armed forces in Caracas left a woman dead and 46 people injured on Wednesday, with opposition leader Juan Guaido attempting to rally demonstrators against President Nicolas Maduro.
Jurubith Rausseo, 27, died at a clinic after being hit by a "bullet in the head during (a) demonstration," the non-governmental Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict said on Twitter, condemning her "murder".
Human rights organizations and health services reported 46 people injured in Wednesday's clashes, including one person with a gunshot wound.
At least one journalist was injured when National Guard soldiers fired rubber bullets at a group of reporters covering the clashes.
But by late afternoon, many of the protesters in the capital Caracas had drifted home.
National Guard troops fired tear gas at remaining protesters attempting to block a highway close to the air base in eastern Caracas where Guaido had tried on Tuesday to spark a military uprising.
The second day of confrontations between opposition supporters and Maduro's security services came as the United States said it was prepared to take military action, if necessary, to stem the crisis in the South American nation.
The standoff in Venezuela increased tensions between the US and Russia, who accused each other of interference in the OPEC-member nation's affairs.
Despite Guaido's calls for the military to support him, the armed forces leadership has so far remained loyal to Maduro, who has been in power since his mentor, the late president Hugo Chavez, died in 2013.
"If the regime thought we had reached maximum pressure, they cannot even imagine," Guaido told thousands of cheering supporters. "We have to remain in the streets."
It was unclear what more Guaido can do at this point.
The Venezuelan opposition has often staged huge street protests against Maduro but failed to dislodge him despite a deep economic recession and hyperinflation.
Demonstrators said they were prepared for the process of ousting Maduro to last a long time.
"We need to keep going," said Laila Amezquita, a 52-year-old nurse from Caracas' downtown Candelaria district. "In three months Guaido's been able to do what they have not done in 20 years, and one has to be patient."
Others are frustrated that nothing has changed more than three months after Guaido, head of the opposition-run National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro's 2018 re-election was illegitimate.
Guaido is recognized as Venezuela's legitimate head of state by the US, the European Union and others, while Maduro is backed by countries including Russia, China, and Cuba.
Those fault lines are increasingly putting Venezuela at the heart of global geopolitical tensions.
US President Donald Trump's administration has imposed sanctions on the Maduro government and refused to rule out military intervention, although it says it prefers a peaceful transition.
"Military action is possible. If that's what's required, that's what the United States will do," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox Business Network.
The Pentagon appeared to downplay any active preparations to directly intervene in Venezuela, but acknowledged detailed contingency planning.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Pompeo on Wednesday that further "aggressive steps" in Venezuela would have grave consequences, Russia's foreign ministry said.
In turn, the United States has accused Moscow of interfering in the South American country, an ally of Russia since the time of Chavez.
Pompeo said Maduro had been expected to flee the country on Tuesday but Russia convinced him to stay, which the Kremlin has denied.
White House national security adviser John Bolton, a foreign policy hawk, said Moscow's involvement was not welcome.
"This is our hemisphere," he told reporters outside the White House. "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."
Test for Guaido
Maduro retains control of state institutions and the loyalty of the armed forces, frustrating Guaido's bid to assume the day-to-day functions of government, which he says would be a prelude to calling new elections.
Seeking to appeal to Maduro's traditional base among the working class, Guaido said on Wednesday he would consider a proposal from public workers to call for a series of stoppages leading up to a general strike.
Carlos Alberto, a 70-year-old small-business owner, draped in a Venezuelan flag at the Caracas protest, said: "We are tired of this regime, that has brutally impoverished us. My children and almost all my family have already left Venezuela. ... We know that if it's not today, it will be tomorrow, because this has to end."
Venezuelan living standards have declined even further in the first several months of the year, with blackouts and water shortages adding to hyperinflation and chronic shortages of food and medicine that have prompted millions to emigrate.
Triple the usual daily number of Venezuelans fled across the border to Brazil on Tuesday, Brazilian government data showed.
Maduro, who says Guaido is a puppet of the United States seeking to orchestrate a coup, also called a march on Wednesday.
In a speech to supporters gathered near the Miraflores presidential palace, Maduro said he recognized the need for "big changes within the Bolivarian revolution".
He did not give details.
Traveling to the pro-Maduro rally, educator Mercedes Martinez called Guaido a "lapdog" and said: "The empire wants to smother us, cut off our head and colonize us. ... The people of Venezuela are defending Venezuela."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)