A fresh wave of protests swept Venezuela Wednesday as U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido ramped up a pressure campaign to oust embattled President Nicolas Maduro, who remained defiant in the face of rising economic pressure and international calls for a new election.
The escalating standoff in Caracas has already claimed dozens of lives and could exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which has emerged as one of the socialist president’s strongest supporters.
President Trump on Wednesday called to congratulate Mr. Guaido, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly and now recognized by the U.S. and a host of other Western Hemisphere countries as the “interim president” under Venezuela’s constitution, even though his future is uncertain as the Maduro regime launches investigations into his “anti-government activities” and has barred him from leaving the country.
While he’s kept a relatively low profile over the past week, Mr. Guaido coordinated a national “walkout” on Wednesday to protest the Maduro government. The demonstrations were smaller than initially expected but still underscored the deep resentment that’s bubbled to the surface across the country amid six years of economic collapse, food shortages and a regionwide refugee crisis under Mr. Maduro.
While the Venezuelan military has yet to show signs of deserting Mr. Maduro, Venezuelan watchers say the current round of protests is more intense than those put down by the regime in 2014 and 2015. This uprising, they say, has spread beyond the well-to-do urban centers and is much more systemic in nature.
“This time around it’s entirely different. … The protests have migrated to the slums,” Francisco Toro, editor-in-chief of the Caracas Chronicles, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
Nearly 40 people have killed so far this month in those demonstrations, and nearly 1,000 people have been arrested.
Amid that chaos, Mr. Trump gave a major boost to the young opposition leader on Wednesday during a brief phone conversation, two days after administration officials unveiled major new sanctions of Venezuelan assets and the state-owned oil company, known as PDVSA.
In a statement announcing the call, the White House said Mr. Guaido “thanked President Trump for the United States’ commitment to freedom and prosperity in Venezuela and the region and noted the importance of the large protests across Venezuela against former dictator Maduro, set to occur today and Saturday.”
But Mr. Maduro has given no indication that he’ll step down anytime soon. The Venezuelan military — which regional analysts say holds the key to the future of the country — has come down firmly on the incumbent president’s side, and he fired back at the U.S. on Wednesday with an angry address at his palace in Caracas and in interviews with friendly Russian state media.
In his brief comments at the presidential palace, he warned that any U.S. military intervention would result in disaster.
“We won’t allow a Vietnam in Latin America,” Mr. Maduro said. “If the aim of the United States is to invade, they’ll have a Vietnam worse than can be imagined.”
But Elliott Abrams, the veteran diplomat recently recruited by Mr. Trump as his special envoy to Venezuela, told reporters at the State Department Wednesday there were signs Mr. Maduro’s military support was eroding. Mr. Abrams said that while the top brass may still be loyal, many rank-and-file soldiers are unhappy with the president and the chaos and poverty that pervades the country.
Mr. Maduro also told the Russian news agency RIA that Mr. Trump “gave the order to kill me” and is working with the criminal gangs in neighboring Colombia to kill him. He presented no evidence for the claim.
While Mr. Maduro flatly rejected calls for a new election — he began a second six-year term earlier this month after a 2018 vote widely seen as fraudulent — he did open the door to negotiations with Mr. Guaido and other opposition leaders.
“I am ready to sit at the negotiating table with the opposition, so that we can speak for the good of Venezuela, for the world and its future,” he said.
His willingness to begin talks comes as the U.S. starts to flex its muscle on the regime. Administration officials have maintained that “all options” are on the table in Venezuela, including military force, but the White House clearly intends to first pursue an economic strategy aimed at forcing Mr. Maduro from power.
Separately, Mexico and Uruguay — among the few countries in the region that have declined to take sides in the Caracas power struggle — said they were organizing a conference of neutral countries and organizations to try to jump-start talks between the government and Mr. Guaido. The conference is to be held Feb. 7 in Montevideo, and Mexico said Wednesday that it expects at least 10 countries and international organizations to participate, the Associated Press reported.
The new U.S. sanctions on PDVSA will block some $7 billion in assets “to prevent the further diversion of Venezuela’s assets,” the White House said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week also announced that Mr. Guaido has the authority to take control of all Venezuelan accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and all other U.S.-insured banks. That move, Mr. Pompeo said, was designed to “help Venezuela’s legitimate government.”
Mr. Maduro blasted the moves and said he intends to challenge them in court.
“With these measures, they intend to rob us,” he said.
Despite talk of military action, regional analysts say there’s little chance of the U.S. following through on that threat — unless the White House is prepared to commit the nation to a years-long occupation and hugely expensive rebuilding process.
“Military intervention is in many ways unrealistic,” Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said on a conference call with reporters.
“This is a country that is twice the size of Iraq,” she continued. “It’s a vast country.”
Furthermore, she said, the country has become so corrupt and mismanaged that it lacks any kind of civil society structure. Parts of the nation lack reliable electricity and clean water.
“This is in many ways a failed state,” Ms. O’Neil said. “You’re starting from zero in many places.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.
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