Guaido faces test with call for ‘largest march’ in Venezuela history

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Opposition leader Juan Guaido faced a key test of support on Wednesday after calling for the “largest march” in Venezuela’s history to try to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro, even as the military has so far resisted calls to help remove him.

Guaido on Tuesday urged the armed forces to support his effort to oust Maduro and appeared outside an air force base with dozens of National Guard members.

But there were no concrete signs of defection from the leadership of the armed forces, despite a years-long deep economic crisis and support for Guaido from the United States and other Western nations.

“Today we continue,” Guaido wrote in a post on Twitter early on Wednesday. “We will keep going with more strength than ever, Venezuela.”

The size of the planned street protest in Caracas will provide a test for Guaido, amid frustration among some supporters that Maduro remains in office more than three months after the opposition leader - who heads the National Assembly - invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

People drive their motorcycles near a burnt bus during anti-government protests, in Caracas. (Reuters)
People drive their motorcycles near a burnt bus during anti-government protests, in Caracas. (Reuters)

While Guaido earned the backing of the United States and most Western countries, the armed forces have stood by Maduro, who retains the support of allies like Russia, China, and Cuba.

That has frustrated Guaido’s bid to assume the day-to-day functions of government on an interim basis - which he says would be a prelude to calling new elections.

Maduro, a socialist, calls Guaido a puppet of the United States who is seeking to orchestrate a coup against him.

More than 100 people were injured in anti-Maduro protests on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare.

Russia on Wednesday denied a comment by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a day earlier that Maduro was prepared to leave the country but nixed his plan after Russia intervened. A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry told reporters the comments were part of an “information war.”

Pompeo was scheduled to speak with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday about the political situation in Venezuela, White House national security adviser John Bolton said.

Bolton, a hawk on Venezuela, made clear that Moscow’s interference 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.”

The White House National Security Council scheduled a meeting for Wednesday afternoon to discuss next steps on the political turmoil in Venezuela, and acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan canceled a trip to Europe because of Venezuela.

In a television interview Wednesday, Pompeo said US military action was “possible” in Venezuela but that the Trump administration would prefer a peaceful transfer of power.

The US Federal Aviation Administration late on Tuesday banned US air operators from flying below 26,000 feet (7,925 meters) in Venezuela’s airspace, citing political instability.

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