Venezuela military chief declares loyalty to Maduro and warns US not to intervene

Andrew Buncombe

Venezuela’s military chief has declared his support for president Nicolas Maduro and warned the US not to intervene – a move that may be crucial if the man sworn in for a second term two weeks ago is to cling on to power.

As Britain became the latest nation to recognise opposition politician Juan Guaido as the country’s president, military forces loyal to Mr Maduro took to the airwaves to declare their support for him.

In a televised speech on Thursday, defence minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said Mr Maduro was the country’s legitimate president and that the opposition was seeking to carry out a coup.

“I warn the people that there is a coup under way against our democracy and our president Nicolas Maduro,” Mr Padrino said, according to Telesur. “As soldiers, we work for peace and not for war.

“Those of us who lived through the coup of 2002 have it etched into our minds, we never thought we’d see that again, but we saw it yesterday.”

The support of the military will be crucial if Mr Maduro, first elected in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez, sees off what is probably the sternest challenge yet to his rule, as his country reels from an economic crisis and financial sanctions.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country, while even former supporters of Chavez have criticised his successor and accused him of incompetence and increasing authoritarianism. Shortages of basic food and medicine have become drasticm and health experts have warned about weight loss because of insufficient calories, especially among children.

In the summer of 2017, Mr Maduro convened a special assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution, a move that was widely condemned. In doing so, he stripped the parliament of which Mr Guaido is head, of its powers.

The move triggered widespread protests and a warning from a number of countries that Venezuela’s democracy was being further eroded.

On Wednesday, the US recognised Mr Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.

“In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the national assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant. The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Mr Trump said in a statement

Canada quickly followed, as did Britain Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Organisation of American States. In turn, Mr Maduro cut diplomatic ties with the US and gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave.

The State Department said it did not recognise the order as it had been made by Mr Maduro and not Mr Guaido. But it later ordered non-emergency US personnel to leave the country and strongly suggested all US citizens follow suit.

On Thursday, tensions escalated further as Mr Maduro ordered all of Venezuela’s diplomats home from the United States and closed the country’s embassy. He told US diplolats to leave Caracas.

“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” he said in a speech that was televised. “You must fulfill my order from the government of Venezuela.”

Russia, China, Mexico and Turkey have said they still recognise Mr Maduro. Russia has accused the US of hypocrisy.

The 35-year-old who has claimed to be Venezuela’s president has enjoyed something of a meteoric rise.

The Associated Press said his mentor was Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela’s most popular opposition leader, who is under house arrest and considered by government opponents to be a political prisoner.

The government accuses Mr Lopez of taking part in a right-wing coup against Chavez that briefly unseated him in 2002.

With up to 16 people reported to be dead in protests that have taken place this week, the Vatican said Pope Francis was closely following developments in and supported all efforts that helped save the population from further suffering.

A statement from Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti on Thursday did not say if the Holy See recognised opposition leader Mr Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency.

On a visit to Washington, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, said: “It is clear that Nicolas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela ... the United Kingdom believes Juan Guaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward.”

The US has a long history of interfering with democratically elected governments in Latin America and in Venezuela it has sought to weaken the elected governments of both Mr Maduro and Mr Chavez.

Some of the effort has been in distributing funds to opposition groups through organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, while some has been in the form of simple propaganda.

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, said that for the past 20 years it had been US policy to seek a change of government in Caracas. Mr Trump’s recognition of Mr Guaido was the most obvious effort to undermine the government.

“More than anything else, I think this was a crime of opportuity,” he told The Independent. “It’s been trying to do this for years. Right now, the economy is in tatters and there – for the first time – are lot of conservative leaders in the region who support what the US has done.”