Venezuela opposition leader 'held secret meetings' with military leaders in bid to oust Maduro

Harriet Alexander
Venezuela's National Assembly head and self-proclaimed 'acting president' Juan Guaido said he believes the military is fed up of the regime - AFP

Venezuela’s self-declared “interim president” was recognised by the European Parliament on Thursday, and set out to promote his plan for restoring order to the chaotic country.

Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the national assembly, visited a forum at the Central University of Venezuela to outline his “rescue plan”.

As he addressed the forum his home was raided by Venezuela's security services (FAES), he tweeted.

"At this moment the FAES is in my house, my family home. I hold citizen Nicolas Maduro responsible for the safety of my daughter who is there."

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, criticised the "intimidation" tactic.

"We strongly condemn the intimidation against President Guaido and his family on the part of the repressive forces of Venezuela's illegitimate dictatorship," he said.

The raid came as The Telegraph learnt that the International Monetary Fund has been in informal talks with Venezuelan opposition leaders in order to advise on plans to rebuild the country’s devastated economy.

Juan Guaido marches with fellow opponents of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Wednesday

One of the co-chairs of a new committee appointed by the Venezuelan national assembly and tasked with planning for a transition to a functioning economy, Juan Meija, told The Telegraph: “We understand that we’re going to have to get a lot of help from multilateral organisations from the such as IMF [to rebuild the economy]. We’ve already discussed some of these plans with them. Up to now it has been unofficial but I think that will change soon."

The IMF did not deny that it had held informal discussions with the opposition, but said that talk of a bailout was “premature”.

Earlier in the day on Thursday, Mr Guaido refused to rule out US military intervention to oust his rival, President Nicolas Maduro, telling CNN that the Venezuelan people want to end Mr Maduro's dictatorship with "whatever pressure is necessary."

He also claimed, in an op ed published in Thursday's New York Times, to be engaged in talks with the military to encourage them to defect.

Nicolas Maduro with his troops on Wednesday

The military, backed up by Cuban advisers, are seen as holding the balance of power in the troubled country.

"Do you want a puppet of the gringos to govern Venezuela?" Mr Maduro asked soldiers at a rally on Wednesday, referring to Mr Guaido, who is strongly supported by the US.

So far, the troops have largely remained loyal to Mr Maduro, although some high-profile leaders including the top officer in Washington DC have joined Mr Guaido. And factions of officers who have defected say they are plotting returns from their makeshift headquarters in Peru, Colombia and other countries. Rebellious military commanders even held secret meetings with the Trump administration over the last year to discuss their plans to overthrow Mr Maduro.

“The transition will require support from key military contingents,” Mr Guaido wrote. “We have had clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces. We have offered amnesty to all those who are found not guilty of crimes against humanity.

“The military’s withdrawal of support from Mr Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government, and the majority of those in service agree that the country’s recent travails are untenable.”

Nicolas Maduro in a tank with his troops, on Wednesday

He told Spain’s El Pais newspaper, however, that he was not seeking a civil war.

"The risk of a civil war in Venezuela does not exist, despite what certain people want to believe or want to let us believe. Why? Because 90 per cent of the population wants a change," he said.

But there was "a risk of violence" from Mr Maduro's government, which he said used specialised police forces and "paramilitaries" to repress and kill opponents.

"I am convinced that at a certain moment the army will end up manifesting its discontent, and take this opportunity to stand on the side of the constitution,” he said.

“And not only because we propose an amnesty."

Venezuelans walk past a mural of President Donald Trump in Caracas

Analysts are concerned that the conflict could see the US and Russia drawn into open hostilities, with Moscow backing Mr Maduro.

On Thursday a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry said there were no plans underway for evacuation of the country's diplomats or other citizens from Venezuela, but would not comment on why a Russian airliner showed up in the Venezuelan capital's airport on Monday.

The arrival of the Boeing 777 belonging to Russian airline Nordwind has led to widespread speculation, including that Venezuelan officials might be aiming to spirit tons of gold reserves out of the country as a political crisis deepens.

A plane from Russian company Nordwind is seen at Simon Bolivar Airport in Caracas

On Friday Mike Pence, the US vice president, will address Venezuelan exiles in Miami. Over three million Venezuelans have fled their homes in recent years, and Miami is one of the most popular destinations for those not stuck in limbo in neighbouring Latin American countries.

President Donald Trump was the first to recognise Mr Guaido as the country’s legitimate ruler, on January 23, and he and his team have been doing all they can to back him in the intervening days.

A group of European Union countries have given Mr Maduro a deadline of Sunday to call elections, or else they will recognise Mr Guaido.

"If imperialists want new elections, let them wait until 2025," said Mr Maduro in response.

"The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump," he said at the weekend.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, has backed Mr Guaido

Britain said on Thursday it was considering "targeted sanctions against the kleptocrats who have enriched themselves" on the back of a suffering population.

Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, spoke to Mr Guaido on Wednesday and urged his counterparts to embrace the youthful leader.

"For us, Mr Guaido is the president of Venezuela and we do hope that the European Union will find a united position on this," he said.

Five foreign journalists were arrested in Caracas during this week's protests, although all five were later released.

Mr Guaido wrote on Twitter: "Very soon full freedom of expression and information will reign in Venezuela."

"The dictatorship is getting weaker all the time."