Violence erupted in the streets of Caracas on Tuesday as U.S.-backed Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido unexpectedly launched what he called the “final phase” of his campaign to drive socialist President Nicolas Maduro from power, urging supporters and members of the military to mount an all-out rebellion and take control of the government.
A chaotic scene unfolded quickly after Mr. Guaido, with clear backing from top Trump administration officials and a number of Venezuela’s neighbors, released an early morning video filmed near a Caracas military air base. He was flanked by dozens of armed national guard members who had abandoned Mr. Maduro and added newfound heft to the opposition.
Mr. Guaido and leading Venezuelan opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez, who had been released from house arrest by security forces following Mr. Guaido’s orders, called for an unprecedented popular uprising they dubbed Operation Freedom.
Despite scenes of street riots, tear gas attacks and even the sight of an armored government truck driving into a crowd of rock-throwing demonstrators, it was unclear at day’s end whether the protests in the capital had dented Mr. Maduro’s authority or the critical support of top military and legal officials.
Mr. Maduro did not appear in public. He issued only a Twitter post proclaiming his “nerves of steel,” condemning the opposition and telling supporters, “We will win!”
With more than 50 countries in the Western Hemisphere and Europe saying they recognize Mr. Guaido as the country’s legitimate “interim president,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all sides in the conflict to exercise “maximum restraint” and try to find a negotiated solution.
Adding to the confusion of the day’s events, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday evening that the U.S. learned that Mr. Maduro had been preparing to give up power and flee to Cuba, only to be dissuaded from stepping down by Russia, a longtime ally.
“He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay,” Mr. Pompeo told CNN.
The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry called for an end to the violence but said any bloodshed would be on the hands of Mr. Guaido.
“The radical opposition in Venezuela has again resorted to violent methods of confrontation,” the ministry said in a statement. “Instead of seeking to settle political disputes peacefully, it has adopted a course of escalating the conflict, provoking violations of public order and staging clashes with the involvement of the armed forces.”
“Hopefully, all Cuban soldiers [in Venezuela] will promptly and peacefully return to their island!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
The video was clearly a high-risk move for Mr. Guaido, the speaker of the opposition-led National Assembly, and his allies. Even top White House officials conceded that if the effort fails, then the prospects of pushing Mr. Maduro from power will dim dramatically. Outmanned and outgunned by government forces, Mr. Guaido and Mr. Lopez appealed to ordinary Venezuelans reeling from the hemisphere’s worst economic and humanitarian crisis to join their cause.
“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” said Mr. Lopez, who later reportedly sought protection inside the Chilean Embassy in Caracas.
His exact whereabouts late Tuesday afternoon were unknown.
The stunning turn of events marks an inflection point in the monthslong U.S.-backed push to oust Mr. Maduro.
The effort began in earnest in January when the Trump administration and leaders of dozens of other nations officially recognized Mr. Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president. They said Mr. Maduro’s re-election victory last year was hopelessly compromised by fraud and voter intimidation. Hopes of a negotiated solution between the government and its critics quickly faded.
“There is no other way out of this,” he said.
In Washington, a host of top administration officials reiterated their calls for Mr. Maduro to leave office peacefully. John R. Bolton, White House national security adviser, warned Venezuela’s military leaders that it was their last chance to break ties with the socialist leader or “go down with the ship.”
Leading Venezuelan critics in Congress, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republicans, and Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, echoed the harsh language targeting the Maduro regime.
Mr. Maduro’s allies in Moscow and leftist regional regimes such as Cuba and Bolivia blasted the U.S. and expressed their support for Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez.
The fiery rhetoric and geopolitical jockeying, however, were overshadowed by events on the ground in Caracas, where the call for revolution spurred a violent crackdown from the Maduro regime.
Venezuelan forces reportedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets at Mr. Guaido’s supporters, and doctors said they were treating dozens of people with injuries such as body trauma and at least one gunshot wound.
No deaths were reported, but the director of a medical center in Venezuela’s capital told The Associated Press that doctors were treating 50 people injured during street skirmishes. Maggia Santi, director of Salud Chacao, said 30 of those injured were shot with rubber bullets. Another 16 sustained bodily trauma, three reported difficulty breathing and one was shot with a firearm, AP reported.
Dramatic video emerged of what appeared to be an armored utility vehicle driving full speed into a crowd of demonstrators, though it’s unclear whether anyone was hurt.
Top Venezuelan officials threatened massive violence if demonstrators moved on the presidential palace and tried to rally regime supporters to protect the building.
Mr. Guaido pledged that his revolution would be peaceful. Still, his appearance alongside armed soldiers sent a strong signal that he had the backing of at least a portion of the nation’s military and suggested that he was digging in for a long, potentially violent confrontation.
“The armed forces have taken the right decision,” Mr. Guaido said. “With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution, they are on the right side of history.”
“Since 2002, we’ve seen the same pattern,” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told AP. “They call for violence, a coup, and send people into the streets so that there are confrontations and deaths. And then from the blood, they try to construct a narrative.”
Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, Samuel Moncada, told reporters in New York that Mr. Guaido’s movement had been defeated and “the country is right now in a situation of perfect normality.”
Although it’s unclear whether the White House explicitly advised Mr. Guaido to urge rebellion, top administration officials quickly threw their full support behind the gambit. They also warned the Venezuelan people that this may be their last, best chance to install a new government.
“If this effort fails, they will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives,” Mr. Bolton told reporters during a hastily arranged press conference outside the White House.
In an unusual move, the hawkish White House adviser called out by name three close allies of Mr. Maduro: Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala. He said they had secretly negotiated with the opposition to overthrow the president and should make good on their promises.
“All agreed that Maduro had to go,” Mr. Bolton said. “They need to be able to act this afternoon and this evening to be able to bring other military forces to the side of the interim president.”
Mr. Padrino showed no sign of deserting the regime. He tweeted and appeared on national television in support of the president and condemned the violent street demonstrations. The defense minister said the uprising by the “savage opposition” had not spread outside the capital.
Mr. Pompeo, acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, top lawmakers on Capitol Hill and a host of others also called for the success of the anti-Maduro movement and encouraged the Venezuelan military to defect en masse.
“This is the moment for those military officers in Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim president,” Mr. Rubio said in a Twitter message.
Despite the barrage of supporting messages, Mr. Guaido’s diplomatic representative in Washington, Carlos Vecchio, told reporters that the Trump administration did not help orchestrate Tuesday’s events. The uprising “is a movement headed by Venezuelans,” Mr. Vecchio said.
Whatever the depth of the American role, some observers warned that Washington could be making a grave miscalculation about Mr. Maduro’s staying power.
“If Maduro prevails, as seems likely, the push to restore democracy in Venezuela will not disappear, but it will have suffered a serious setback,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank that advocates a more restrained foreign policy.
“Washington will have to ask whether grudging acceptance of Maduro’s rule is better than prolonged hostility,” Mr. Friedman said.
“Cuba stands by the legitimate government of Venezuela that is calmly and courageously facing the new coup attempt by the pro-imperialist right with the complicity of the US and lackey governments of the region,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a Twitter message.
• Lauren Meier, Guy Taylor and Tom Howell contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire reports.
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