As Venezuela’s self-appointed interim president reportedly works behind the scenes to win over the armed forces, even offering them amnesty for past crimes, the country’s defense minister said Monday that the military is “ready to die” for its homeland.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino tweeted the statement as Venezuela’s opposition, led by Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, called for massive rallies to demand President Nicolas Maduro’s ouster, and as Maduro claims the United States has orchestrated a coup to topple him.
On Monday, Maduro slammed US National Security Adviser John Bolton, accusing Bolton and US President Donald Trump’s government of openly calling for a coup from Washington.
Speaking in a television address live on state broadcaster VTV, Maduro said, “So now John Bolton openly calls for a coup from Washington, he did so desperately today, with his wild eyes, full of hate, and I tell you John Bolton: John Bolton, in Venezuela what we will have is democracy and respect for this constitution. In Venezuela our armed forces are not coup-mongers.” In the same address, Maduro said he holds Trump responsible for any “bloodshed” that might occur in Venezuela.
Maduro took a blow Saturday as Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, Col. José Luis Silva Silva, defected and said he stands with Guaido in the power struggle. Observers say control of the military is key to forcing new elections.
Padrino’s remarks, delivered on the official Defense Ministry account, praised Venezuela’s military for taking a moral high ground in the face of American “imperialists.”
“It is time for revolutionary, Bolivarian, patriotic activism,” Padrino tweeted. “This is the activism that today empowers us in this new phase of defending our homeland. We are not going to hand it over! We are ready to die for it!”
New US sanctions against Venezuela
Maduro’s TV interview comes after Bolton and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin formally announced sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) while speaking in the White House briefing room Monday.
The sanctions against PDVSA – the parent company of the US-based Citgo oil company – block about $7 billion in assets and would result in more than $11 billion in lost assets over the next year.
“The United States is holding accountable those responsible for Venezuela’s tragic decline,” Mnuchin told reporters.
Mnuchin said the sanctions would be effective “immediately” and the money from purchases of Venezuelan oil by US entities will go into blocked accounts.
“Now is the time to stand for prosperity and democracy in Venezuela,” Bolton told reporters, adding that President Donald Trump “has made it very clear on this matter that all options are on the table.”
Maduro accused the United States of trying to rob Venezuela with these sanctions.
He said, “With these measures, they intend to rob Citgo from all Venezuelan men and women. Red alert, Venezuela! The United States today has decided to embark on the path of robbing the firm Citgo from Venezuela. It is an illegal path. And I have given precise instructions to the President of PDVSA, which owns Citgo, to initiate political and legal actions in US and global courts in order to defend the ownership and wealth of Citgo.”
Guaido seeks to take control of oil assets abroad
Guaido said he ordered Congress to nominate executive boards for PDVSA and Citgo to “guarantee that Citgo continues to be for Venezuelans,” according to a statement posted on his official Twitter account.
PDVSA has owned Citgo, which is based in Houston, since the 1980s
“From this moment forward we are beginning to take progressive and orderly control of our republic’s assets abroad,” Guaido wrote in the statement, adding that he is doing so in order to prevent Maduro’s government from “continuing to rob Venezuelans’ money.”
Addressing employees of Citgo and PDVSA abroad, Guaido said, “I extend to you my invitation to continue working for their (the companies’) rehabilitation.”
US official: Maduro regime a ‘mafia state’
Guaido declared himself acting president last week amid deadly anti-government protests, claiming Maduro was illegitimately elected for a second term in May.
Maduro responded Monday in a tweet saying that he received 67.84% of the votes in the election, “way higher than what was achieved by those governments that are trying to impose a coup in Venezuela. Here the people elect, not the Empire!”
The United States and several Latin American nations did not recognize the May election as legitimate.
At least 35 people have been killed in protests in Venezuela since last Tuesday, according to an update provided Monday by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a Caracas-based nongovernmental organization that monitors protests and violence across the country’s 23 states.
CNN cannot independently verify the death toll and no official figures have been released by the government.
The battle to lead the country has divided the world.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Bolton have implored nations to join the US in recognizing Guaido’s government.
“We’re here to urge all nations to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people as they try to free themselves from former president Maduro’s illegitimate mafia state,” Bolton tweeted.
The United Kingdom, Spain, Germany and France said Saturday they would recognize Guaido as leader if elections weren’t scheduled in eight days. Maduro did not appear open to the idea.
“Nobody gives us an ultimatum,” he said. “All of Europe is bowing down to Donald Trump. It’s that simple, especially when it comes the Venezuela.”
Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Peru have also recognized Guaido as president, while Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey are among those backing Maduro.
Maduro alleges US coup behind upheaval
In a video posted to Twitter on Sunday, Guaido called for the people of Venezuela to peacefully take to the streets Wednesday in opposition to Maduro’s presidency. He asked people to join him for a second protest Saturday, where he called for support from within Venezuela and throughout the world.
“The people who think that we are going to fizzle, I think they are not going to be happy,” Guaido said Friday in his first public appearance after challenging Maduro’s regime. “There are people here in the streets for a long time.”
He told The Washington Post that the opposition is in talks with military and civilian officials to force Maduro out of the presidential palace.
“This is a very delicate subject involving personal security,” he told the paper. “We are meeting with them, but discreetly.”
Maduro says Venezuela has fallen “victim of a US conspiracy.” He referred specifically to reports that US Vice President Mike Pence promised Guaido full American support the day before he declared himself Venezuela’s new leader.
The US has launched a coup to remove him from office, he said, telling CNN Turk he’s reached out to Trump but hasn’t received a response because “I think he’s overwhelmed with his domestic problem and, I believe, I think he despises us. He despises all of America and the Caribbean. I think he despises the world.”
He continued, “This is the reason for the coup. They don’t want us to get better. They sabotage us and try to destroy the economic system.”
A UN official said Friday that at least 20 people had been killed in protest-related violence last week, while the nongovernmental Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict on Friday pegged the tally at 29 since Wednesday night. CNN could not independently confirm the counts.
In the last week, 850 people – 77 of them minors – have been arrested in connection with the protests, according to Foro Penal, a human rights group that monitors courts and police.
Inflation, economic mismanagement and corruption are some of the factors behind the country’s unrest. A modest basket of water, nuts, cheese, ham and fruit cost the equivalent of 200 US dollars in a country where the monthly wage is less than $10.
Amid forecasts by the International Monetary Fund predicting hyperinflation could reach 10,000,000% in 2019, Venezuela moved Monday to devalue its currency and allow a new private entity to operate on the foreign exchange market.
CNN’s Hande Atay Alam, Jason Hanna, Ray Sanchez, Flora Charner, Allie Malloy and Taylor Barnes contributed to this report. Vasco Cotovio contributed from London.