Venezuela’s senior military figures signal backing for Maduro

Venezuela’s senior military figures signal backing for Maduro

24/01/2019 15:02 - Display of support comes after US and others recognise opposition leader as rightful president

Senior figures in the Venezuelan military came out in support of President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday, a day after the US said it no longer recognised him as the country’s leader and backed the opposition’s Juan Guaidó instead.

Vladimir Padrino López, a general and Venezuela’s defence minister, said Mr Maduro was the country’s rightful leader and condemned what he described as Mr Guaidó’s unlawful attempt to wrest power from the socialist regime.

“Yesterday we saw a reprehensible event: a man proclaiming himself president,” Mr Padrino López said, referring to Wednesday’s huge street protests in Caracas, during which Mr Guaidó took a self-administered oath as Venezuela’s interim leader. “That’s a very serious matter.”

“We are here to avoid . . . a conflict between Venezuelans,” he said. “It is not a civil war that will solve Venezuela’s problems. It is dialogue.”

In a video posted on social media and broadcast on state TV, other senior military figures also backed Mr Maduro, who has led the country since 2013 but has come under intense pressure to resign since he started his second term as president this month after an election victory widely dismissed as a fraud.

“The people of Venezuela, in a free and secret vote, elected Nicolás Maduro Moros as president,” said Major General Manuel Bernal Martínez, head of the military in the west of the country.

Backed by dozens of soldiers in olive green fatigues, other generals stepped forward and added their expressions of support for Mr Maduro.

The declarations came after a day of high drama in which, one-by-one, many countries across the Americas turned their backs on Mr Maduro and embraced Mr Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, or Congress — regarded widely as the last bastion of democracy in the country.

Donald Trump hailed Mr Guaidó as the nation’s leader, and other countries followed suit in what appeared to be a carefully synchronised move to undermine Mr Maduro.

Venezuela has become increasingly militarised since Mr Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, a former paratrooper, came to power 20 years ago, and the military’s support could tip the balance of power between the two rival presidents.

"His regime is morally bankrupt, it is economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core." Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state

While the top brass of the military appears to be steadfast in its support for Mr Maduro, there are increasing signs of discontent among the lower ranks, where soldiers suffer the same deprivations as ordinary citizens. Earlier this week, the government quashed a rebellion by 27 members of the Bolivarian national guard — the military police force.

“It took the military several hours to express their support for Maduro after Guaidó designated himself president but they eventually came out with clear, if not exactly effusive, support,” said David Smilde, an expert on Venezuela at Tulane University in the US.

“I think those hours after Guaidó's self-proclamation were the key test and Maduro got past that hump. However, his support from the military is clearly not airtight and that will be the key in the days and weeks ahead.”

The Maduro government has warned the US of repercussions, saying that “things could happen” at its embassy in Caracas.

Mr Maduro has given staff there 72 hours to leave the country, accusing the US of trying to foment a coup. Mr Maduro praised the military in a speech on Thursday to the Supreme Court, which is packed with his supporters, and mocked Mr Guaidó and his backers as “a government of clowns”.

Dressed in a suit and wearing the red, blue and yellow presidential sash, the 56-year-old looked relaxed and joked with his audience of magistrates.

“I’m alive, thank God, and I will be for many years,” he said. “I will never resign from a commitment to the country. Never, under any circumstances.”

Mr Maduro said he had ordered the closure of the Venezuelan embassy in Washington and the withdraw of all diplomatic and consular staff from the US.

“All this aggression comes from the Yankee empire,” he said. The Venezuelan opposition, egged on by the Trump administration, was trying to drive the country towards “a state of madness, violence and chaos”, he added.

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, said Washington no longer recognised the Maduro regime and would not withdraw its staff. “The United States will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel,” he said.

In remarks on Thursday to the Organization of American States, a diplomatic body comprising nearly all the countries in the Americas, Mr Pompeo again denounced Mr Maduro: “His regime is morally bankrupt, it is economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core.”

Foro Penal (Penal Forum), a Venezuelan non-governmental organisation, said seven people have died this week in clashes between anti-government protesters and the security forces, and more than 200 were injured. Local media put the death toll as high as 16.

After Wednesday’s drama, the streets of Caracas were relatively calm on Thursday, and Mr Guaidó kept a low profile.

“We’ll have to wait and see what happens. A lot of people are confused, and some are saying he’s already gone into hiding,” said 42-year-old Victor Oropeza in the Caracas neighbourhood of La Yaguara.

The battle for power of the Venezuelan executive has split the world.

While the US and major Latin American nations including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia have backed Mr Guaidó, Russia, China, Turkey and Mexico still regard Mr Maduro as president. The US has requested a UN Security Council meeting on Saturday to discuss the “ongoing crisis” in Venezuela.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, expressed support for Mr Maduro in a phone call on Thursday, the Kremlin said, as well as his backing for a “peaceful dialogue”.

The EU held back from explicitly backing Mr Guaidó as leader, reflecting European reluctance to align themselves fully with what they see as Washington’s hawkish action.

On Wednesday, prices for Venezuela’s bonds jumped to their highest levels in seven months on hope that regime change might be near in the country, which under Mr Maduro has suffered one of the biggest economic collapses in Latin American history.

The economy has halved in size in five years and gross domestic product dropped 18 per cent in 2018 alone, as oil output slumped to its lowest level since the 1940s. The International Monetary Fund expects inflation to hit 10m per cent this year.

Some 3m people have fled the country in recent years, many of them suffering from hunger. The UN expects thousands more to follow this year.

Additional reporting by Vanessa Silva in Caracas es un sitio web oficial del Gobierno Argentino