Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.
The dramatic events began early Tuesday when Guaidó, flanked by a few dozen national guardsmen and some armored vehicles, released a three-minute video filmed near a La Carlota air base in which he called on civilians and others in the armed forces to join a final push to topple Maduro.
In a surprise, standing alongside him was Leopoldo Lopez, his political mentor and the nation's most-prominent opposition activist, who has largely been unseen since he was detained in 2014 for leading anti-government protests. Lopez said he had been released from house arrest by security forces adhering to an order from Guaido.
"I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers," Lopez declared.
As the two allies coordinated actions from vehicles parked on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent Carlota air base. A crowd that quickly swelled to a few thousand scurried for cover, with a smaller group of masked youths reassembling outside the air base's gates where they lobbed rocks and other heavy objects.
"It's now or never," said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandana worn by the few dozen soldiers who stood alongside Guaidó and Lopez.
President of the National Constituent Assembly of Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, however, said that Guaido had not been able to take over air base. Guaido later left the rally, Reuters witnesses said. Cabello also called on Venezuelans to amass at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he said was a U.S.-backed coup attempt.
Soon after, President Maduro said he had spoken with the military leaders, who have shown him "total loyalty."
"Nerves of steel!," Maduro said on Twitter. "I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace. We will win!"
The dramatic events, playing out in the opposition's stronghold in the wealthier neighborhood of eastern Caracas, appeared not to have triggered a broader military revolt.
Hundreds of Maduro supporters have gathered at a rally beside Venezuela's presidential palace, where security force members are deployed on the perimeter wall.
Venezuela's government is confronting a small group of "military traitors" that are seeking to promote a coup, Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said earlier on Tuesday on Twitter. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said that the National Bolivarian Armed Forces (FANB) remains firmly in defense of the national constitution and legitimate authorities. He added that all military units across the country "report normality" in their barracks and military bases.
Guaidó said the troops who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela's constitution. He said that in the coming hours he would release a list of top commanders supporting the uprising.
"The armed forces have taken the right decision," said Guaidó. "With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history."
Turkey berates Venezuelan opposition's uprising call
President Tayyip Erdoğan condemned the apparent coup attempt, saying the whole world should respect the democratic choices of Venezuelans.
"Those who are in an effort to appoint a postmodern colonial governor to Venezuela, where the president was appointed by elections and where the people rule, should know that only democratic elections can determine how a country is governed," he tweeted.
"As a country that has fought against coups itself, we condemn the current attempt to overthrow the government in Venezuela. The world must respect Venezuelan people's democratic choice," the president said.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also expressed solidarity with Venezuelan people, urging for dialogue to solve the nation's problems.
"We are concerned at reports of moves against the constitutional order in Venezuela. We stand against attempts to change legitimate governments with undemocratic ways. Problems should be resolved through dialogue. We stand with the Venezuelan people," Çavuşoğlu wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Spokesman Ömer Çelik called the overthrow attempt "the biggest treachery military elements can commit against its nation," saying that no country can appoint a head of state in another country.
"Turkey sides with the constitution and the elected administrators of countries, and against all kinds of coups," he asserted.
Bolivian President Evo Morales issued a message condemning the coup attempt and expressing confidence that Maduro and the Venezuelan republic would defeat this "new attack by the empire," referring the United States.
"We strongly condemn the attempted coup in Venezuela, by the right wing that is submissive to foreign interests," he wrote on Twitter.
He blamed the U.S. for "provoking violence and death in Venezuela."
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel also condemned the coup attempt, writing on Twitter: "We reject this coup movement that aims to fill the country with violence. The traitors who have placed themselves at the forefront of this subversive movement have used troops and police with weapons of war on a public road in the city to create anxiety and terror."
Guaido's supporters, however, came to his defense, with the governments of Colombia, Panama, Brazil, Chile and Argentina issuing statements of support, while Spain called on Venezuela to avoid bloodshed and move toward democratic elections.
The president of the Organization of American States (OAS) Luis Almagro applauded the "adhesion" of some military forces to Guaido and stressed the necessity of a peaceful transition of power.
"We call the military and the people of #Venezuela to be on the right side of history, rejecting dictatorship and usurpation of Maduro; uniting in search of freedom, democracy and institutional reconstruction, headed by @AsambleaVE and the President @jguaido," Colombian President Ivan Duque tweeted.
Government spokeswoman Isabel Celaa of Spain, which has thrown its support behind Guaido, said Madrid thinks he "is legitimate to carry out the transformation of Venezuela," however, emphasized that "Spain is not supporting any military coup."
Soon after Guaido's video was released, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: "This is the moment for those military officers in Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President Guaido in this effort to restore democracy. You can write history in the hours & days ahead."
Rubio, a Florida senator of Cuban descent, has been an influential figure on Venezuela policy in Washington, and one of the loudest voices supporting Guaido. His electorate mainly consisted of Cuban and other Latin American emigres with strong resentment towards socialist governments, and Rubio is known for his hawkish stance against Havana, one of Maduro's key allies.
The White House, meanwhile, a main backer of Guaido, said that U.S. President Donald Trump had been briefed on the developments in Venezuela.
"The president has been briefed and we are monitoring the ongoing situation," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in an email.
"Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad. The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday appeared to back Guaido's call for support.
"The FANB must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people. It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy. The United States stands with the people of Venezuela," Bolton tweeted, referring to the FANB armed forces.
Guaido, the leader of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January, he invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro's re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.
He has been traveling outside the capital, Caracas, more and more in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.
Protests are planned for Wednesday, May 1, including what Guaido has said will be "the largest march in Venezuela's history," part of what he calls the "definitive phase" of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.
Maduro calls Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.
Last week, Guaido said his congressional ally - opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro - had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.
Is Blackwater involved?
Erik Prince - the founder of the controversial private security firm Blackwater and a prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump - has been pushing a plan to deploy a private army to help topple Maduro, four sources with knowledge of the effort told Reuters in a report released hours before the coup attempt.
Over the last several months, the sources said, Prince has sought investment and political support for such an operation from influential Trump supporters and wealthy Venezuelan exiles. In private meetings in the United States and Europe, Prince sketched out a plan to field up to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire on behalf of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, according to two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's pitch.
One source said Prince has conducted meetings about the issue as recently as mid-April.
White House National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis declined to comment when asked whether Prince had proposed his plan to the government and whether it would be considered. A person familiar with the administration's thinking said the White House would not support such a plan.
Venezuela opposition officials have not discussed security operations with Prince, said Guaido spokesman Edward Rodriguez, who did not answer additional questions from Reuters. The Maduro government did not respond to a request for comment.
Some U.S. and Venezuelan security experts, told of the plan by Reuters, called it politically far-fetched and potentially dangerous because it could set off a civil war. A Venezuelan exile close to the opposition agreed but said private contractors might prove useful, in the event Maduro's government collapses, by providing security for a new administration in the aftermath.
A spokesman for Prince, Marc Cohen, said this month that Prince "has no plans to operate or implement an operation in Venezuela" and declined to answer further questions.
Lital Leshem - the director of investor relations at Prince's private equity firm, Frontier Resource Group - earlier confirmed Prince's interest in Venezuela security operations.
"He does have a solution for Venezuela, just as he has a solution for many other places," she said, declining to elaborate on his proposal.
The two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's pitch said it calls for starting with intelligence operations and later deploying 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers-for-hire from Colombia and other Latin American nations to conduct combat and stabilization operations.
For Prince, the unlikely gambit represents the latest effort in a long campaign to privatize warfare. The wealthy son of an auto-parts tycoon has fielded private security contractors in conflict zones from Central Asia to Africa to the Middle East.
One of Prince's key arguments, one source said, is that Venezuela needs what Prince calls a "dynamic event" to break the stalemate that has existed since January, when Guaido - the head of Venezuela's National Assembly - declared Maduro's 2018 re-election illegitimate and invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency.
Maduro has denounced Guaido, who has been backed by most western nations, as a U.S. puppet who is seeking to foment a coup. Key government institutions – including the military – have not shifted their loyalty to Guaido despite increasing international pressure from sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.
Guaido has stressed that he wants a peaceful resolution, and Latin American governments recognizing his authority have urged against outside military action. Senior U.S. officials, without ruling out armed intervention, have also emphasized economic and diplomatic measures to pressure Maduro.
Close ties to Trump
Prince was a pioneer in private military contracting during the Iraq war when the U.S. government hired Blackwater primarily to provide security for State Department operations there.
In 2007, Blackwater employees shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians at Nisour Square in Baghdad, sparking international outrage. One of the Blackwater employees involved was convicted of murder in December and three others have been convicted of manslaughter.
Prince renamed the Blackwater security company and sold it in 2010, but he recently opened a company called Blackwater USA, which sells ammunition, silencers and knives. Over the past two years, he has led an unsuccessful campaign to convince the Trump administration to replace U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan with security contractors.
Since 2014, Prince has run the Hong Kong-based Frontier Services Group, which has close ties to the state-owned Chinese investment company CITIC and helps Chinese firms operating in Africa with security, aviation and logistics services.
Prince donated $100,000 to a political action committee that supported Trump's election. His sister, Betsy DeVos, is the administration's education secretary.
Prince's role in Trump's campaign was highlighted in the report by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, released this month, on alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The report outlined how Prince financed an effort to authenticate purported Hillary Clinton emails and how in 2016 he met in the Seychelles islands, off east Africa, with a wealthy Russian financial official on behalf of Trump's presidential transition team.
Prince spokesman Cohen declined to comment on the Mueller report.
Targeting frozen assets
The two sources with direct knowledge of Prince's Venezuela plan said he is seeking $40 million from private investors. He also aims to get funding from the billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets that have been seized by governments around the world imposing sanctions on the OPEC nation, a major oil exporter.
It's unclear, however, how the Venezuelan opposition could legally access those assets. Prince told people in pitch meetings, the sources said, that he believes that Guaido has the authority to form his own military force because he has been recognized internationally as Venezuela's rightful leader.
Prince envisions a force made up of "Peruvians, Ecuadoreans, Colombians, Spanish speakers," one of the sources said, adding that Prince argued that such soldiers would be more politically palatable than American contractors.
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