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Rival Throngs Protest in Venezuela as General Defects

By VOA News February 02, 2019

Supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido and President Nicolas Maduro participated in rival demonstrations Saturday in Caracas as a member of the country's air force high command disavowed Maduro's socialist government and said he recognized Guaido as the interim president.

Thousands of Guaido's supporters, carrying flags and blowing horns, converged on a handful of locations around Caracas in support of his call for early elections and the establishment of a transitional government amid mounting global pressure for Maduro to step down. Guaido arrived at one of the rallies with his wife, Fabiana, and was quickly surrounded by exuberant supporters.

Pro-Maduro demonstrators took to the streets on the western side of Caracas to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Bolivarian revolution that led to the rise of socialist Hugo Chavez, Maduro's deceased predecessor. Maduro addressed the crowd, the first time he has appeared at a public rally since Aug. 4.

Maduro called for new parliamentary elections earlier than planned, repeated he was the country's legitimate president and told the crowd, "I am very ashamed to see this group of opposition coup perpetrators" take orders from Washington.

As he announced his defection, Gen. Francisco Yanez called on other members of the military to defect. Top military leaders have helped Maduro survive previous mass demonstrations in recent years by jailing activists and repressing opposition protesters. It remains unclear how much military support there is for Guaido.

Guaido said in an interview with VOA Noticias he had offered "amnesty and guarantees" to high-ranking military officials as part of a broader effort to get "this usurpation to end."

Sunday deadline

The demonstrations marked the second week of heightened tensions in Venezuela and came before a Sunday deadline set by major European countries for Maduro to call snap elections. Britain, France, Germany and Spain have said they will follow the U.S. in recognizing National Assembly Speaker Guaido as Venezuela's interim president if Maduro does not order new elections by Sunday.

Guaido declared himself interim president last week, a move that was supported by some two dozen countries. Guaido said during the VOA interview he would order new elections "when we achieve the capacity to convene elections." First, Guaido said, "we have to achieve the necessary force in order for this usurpation to end."

Guaido has rejected offers from Mexico's and Uruguay's presidents to negotiate with Maduro. He told them in a letter that "to be neutral is to be on the side of the regime that has condemned hundreds of thousands of human beings to misery, hunger and exile, including death."

Maduro has presided over Venezuela's economic collapse that has resulted in chronic food and medicine shortages. He blames the U.S. for supporting what he calls a coup to remove him from power and exploit Venezuela's vast oil reserves.

Guaido told supporters Saturday that the opposition would start collecting humanitarian aid in Brazil, Colombia and an unnamed Caribbean island, and he called on the military to allow the aid into the country.

'No time for dialogue'

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met Friday with exiled Venezuelans in the southeastern U.S. city of Miami. He reassured them the U.S. would continue efforts to oust Maduro from office.

"This is no time for dialogue," Pence said. "It is time to end the Maduro regime."

Saturday's opposition protests were the second such action taken this week. Guaido led a peaceful demonstration Wednesday in Caracas, a week after street protests deteriorated into days of violence that resulted in the deaths of nearly three dozen people during clashes with government security forces.



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