Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido delivered almost simultaneous public addresses Friday afternoon as the country’s political standoff comes to a head.
National Assembly President Juan Guaido made his first public appearance since swearing himself in as “interim president” on Wednesday, January 23.
Standing alongside fellow members of the legislative body, which has been considered “null and void” by judicial authorities since 2016, Guaido addressed a crowd of supporters and press in the Plaza Bolivar of Chacao, an upper middle class opposition stronghold in eastern Caracas.
Guaido’s speech contained several appeals to the armed forces, calling on them to depose the Maduro government. He warned that the Venezuelan military would face an “important test” shortly, related to the delivery of requested “humanitarian aid.” On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged US $20 million in aid to Guaido’s “transition government.”
Guaido also reiterated several times the three components of the opposition’s “transition route”: an end to what they describe as President Maduro’s“usurpation,” the forming of a “transitional government” and the convening of elections. In addition, he defied Maduro’s decisions to sever diplomatic relations with Washington and close all Venezuelan diplomatic missions in the US, telling US and Venezuelan personnel they could stay where they are.
On international matters, the opposition leader thanked the governments and international bodies that had offered support, starting with the United States. Guaido also praised countries that had imposed sanctions against Venezuela, stressing that “sanctions worked” and played a part in getting the country where it is today.
The 35-year-old US-educated lawmaker also criticized government social programs such as the CLAP food distribution program and the Housing Mission, which he slammed as “corruption” schemes.He also revealed that small scale meetings are set to take place this weekend, with a large rallyto be announced for next week.
Following the speech, Guaido repeatedly avoided questions asking when he would attempt to call elections or what possible names may appear in a parallel cabinet or on the board of US-based Venezuelan state oil company subsidiary CITGO.
An Associated Press (AP) report on Friday revealed that extensive behind-the-scenes work took place leading up to Guaido’s self-proclamation as “interim president.”
According to the report, the opposition leader attended meetings in Washington and other Latin American capitals in mid-December to coordinate events to coincide with Maduro’s swearing in for his second term on January 10.
AP’s report also claimed that while Guaido’s decision to swear himself in as president, while heavily favored by the US and regional allies, was not endorsed or expected by some sectors of the Venezuelan opposition who preferred a slower approach.
Venezuelan opposition-aligned newspaper TalCual reported that several members of the Venezuelan opposition, including in Guaido’s own Popular Will party, were caught by surprise by the self-proclamation.
“We warned that it was not the political moment for this decision and asked [Guaido] to wait a few days, but we understand that this was a personal decision,” stated a national leader from opposition party A New Time.
Maduro doubles down in standoff with US State Department
Almost simultaneously with Guaido’s speech, President Maduro held a press conference in Miraflores Palace, striking a defiant tone and declaring that the US has no say in Venezuelan affairs. Apart from the press, his address was attended by scores of public officials, including ministers and numerous representatives of the armed forces.
Maduro addressed the ongoing diplomatic standoff with the United States after several members of the US embassy in Caracas flew out of the country Friday morning, stressing that the remaining personnel had until Sunday to leave the country. After Maduro declared that Venezuela was severing diplomatic ties with the US on Wednesday, Pompeo had claimed that the Maduro government had no legitimacy to make such a move and that US personnel would stay, before reversing the decision and ordering “non-emergency personnel” to leave the country.
Answering questions from national and foreign journalists, the Venezuelan president stressed that lines of dialogue remain open, echoing previous claims that Guaido held a meeting with high-ranking Chavista figures Diosdado Cabello and Freddy Bernal on Tuesday night. Maduro added that this meeting took place in a hotel in Caracas, and Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez later unveiled CCTV footage allegedly showing Guaido arriving at the meeting.
When asked about the possibility of intensified sanctions, Maduro responded that the government was “prepared for the worst,” before demanding the Trump administration change course. He also urged Venezuelans to keep the peace, stressing that the “coup efforts” are bolstered only by street violence and that those responsible for generating unrest would be persecuted.
“I call on the free peoples of the world to join us in this battle. The time of coups and invasions is over,” Maduro proclaimed, vowing that a “Libya-style” scenario would not occur in Venezuela.
Diplomatic face-off continues
Diplomatic maneuvers surrounding Guaido’s self-proclamation have continued, with UK Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt releasing a statement saying that Maduro “is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela” and referring to Guaido as “the right person to take Venezuela forward.”
After initially refusing to recognize Guaido and calling for a joint EU position, Spain assumed a new posture on Friday, with Foreign Minister Josep Borrell telling press that Spain would recognize Guaido as interim president unless elections were called “soon.”
In contrast, left-leaning Central American governments El Salvador and Nicaragua expressed support for the Bolivarian government. In an official statement, the Nicaraguan government called on the region to show “dignity and strength against the empire.” Likewise, Salvadoran President Sanchez Ceren voiced his “full support” for the “legitimate government” of Maduro, before calling for a solution free from foreign meddling.
Thursday also saw a diplomatic battle at the Organization of American States, with Secretary Pompeo and OAS Secretary Almagro pushing the body to recognize Guaidó. The efforts were unsuccessful, garnering only 16 favourable votes out of the 34 countries, with US allies Guyana, Santa Lucia, and Jamaica abstaining.
Saturday will see another diplomatic skirmish with the US calling for a session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to discuss Venezuela and urge the body to recognize Guaido. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza is reportedly also flying to New York to denounce what the Venezuelan government terms a “US-led coup” against Caracas.
Mike Pompeo will be present at the UNSC session, and will be accompanied by newly appointed special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams. Abrams is known for role as point-man for Central America policy under the Reagan administration, having been convicted for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. He would go on to advise George W. Bush during the Iraq War, and is widely believed to have given Venezuelan military officials the green light to oust President Hugo Chavez in a short-lived coup d’etat in 2002.
Edited and with additional reporting from Lucas Koerner in Caracas and Paul Dobson in Merida.