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

Venezuelan opposition Juan Guaido will lead his biggest march in the country’s history. (AFP pic)

CARACAS: 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 armed forces leadership, despite a years-long deep economic crisis and support for Guaido from the United States and other Western nations.

The United States and Russia were at odds over Venezuela, with Washington telling Moscow to keep out of “our hemisphere,” and the Kremlin warning the Trump administration against any “aggressive” moves against its ally Maduro.

Thousands of anti-Maduro protesters gathered at different points in Caracas by midday on Wednesday, but the planned march had not yet begun.

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

The size of the protests 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.

The armed forces have so far 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.

On Wednesday, some 300 protesters gathered in the La Victoria section of the western city of Maracaibo, which has been among the country’s hardest hit by a recent wave of blackouts.

They blew whistles and held Venezuelan flags as cars drove by honking their horns, even as only a handful of gas stations were open in Venezuela’s second-largest city due to chronic shortages of fuel in the OPEC nation.

“I think that even though it’s not going to be immediate we have to fight for it,” said Anselmo Ledezma, 53, who attended the march with her daughters.

“My biggest fear is not repression, but rather that this does not get resolved.”

US preparation

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

The Pentagon downplayed any active planning to directly intervene in Venezuela, telling Congress it had not been given orders to prepare for war and stressing support for diplomacy.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by phone that further “aggressive steps” in Venezuela would be fraught with the gravest consequences, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.

Lavrov also condemned what he called the United States’ “interference” in Venezuela’s internal affairs as a breach of international law, adding that dialogue between all political forces is required in the Latin American country.

Pompeo said on Tuesday that Maduro was prepared to leave the country but nixed his plan after Russia intervened.

A spokeswoman for Russia’s foreign ministry denied that. White House national security adviser John Bolton, a Trump administration 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 last time’

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.

“I hope this will be the last time we have to take to the streets,” Claudia Riveros, a 36-year-old bakery worker carrying a Venezuelan flag said during Tuesday’s protest. “I want to see the end of this usurping government.”

Maduro also urged supporters to march on Wednesday. “Tomorrow, the first of May, we will have a large, millions-strong march of the working class,” Maduro said in a television address on Tuesday.

“We have been confronting different types of aggression and attempted coups never before seen in our history.” Elsewhere in Latin America, millions of Cubans took to the streets on Wednesday to protest new sanctions imposed on the Caribbean island by the Trump administration and US efforts to topple the government of socialist ally Venezuela.

The annual marches across the Communist-run country, marking International Workers Day, provided the first opportunity to publicly protest a US offensive against socialism in the region declared by Bolton late last year.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro said he had received information of fractures within the Venezuelan army that could lead to the “collapse” of Maduro’s government.

Opposition leader Guaido’s choice of International Workers’ Day for a major march comes as he is making appeals to union leaders and public workers, a traditional base of support for Maduro and his predecessor and mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.

“If he does get some degree of participation from labor movements, then that can be an additional feather in his cap,” said Risa Grais-Targow, the Latin America director at Eurasia Group consultancy in Washington, adding that the march would be “a significant barometer of his support and capacity to mobilise.

” The Venezuelan opposition has often staged huge street protests against Maduro but has failed to dislodge him.