Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido has claimed to have secretly met with members of the country’s armed forces, as the political crisis surrounding his challenge of incumbent Nicolas Maduro intensifies.
Writing in an opinion piece in the New York Times on Thursday, the opposition leader recognized that any transition of power could not happen without “support from key military contingents” and said his administration has had “clandestine meetings with members of the armed forces and the security forces.”
He did not go into further detail about who those military members were.
“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,” he wrote.
Venezuela army defectors have also made a plea to the United States to supply weapons and move the opposition forward in recent days.
Guaido defined his direct political challenge of Maduro as a struggle for “freedom,” saying that the “survival of our democracy is at stake.”
“Mr. Maduro’s time is running out, but in order to manage his exit with the minimum of bloodshed, all of Venezuela must unite in pushing for a definitive end to his regime,” he wrote.
To achieve that end, the opposition leader laid out a road map to democracy that included ending Maduro’s dictatorship, establishing a transitional government and holding democratic elections.
Maduro was re-elected to a six-year term last year, and though he claimed the elections were fair, international observers have questioned their legitimacy.
Guaido called his re-election “illegitimate” and by staying in office, Maduro was “usurping the presidency.” Guaido has defended his political challenge as constitutionally mandated, saying that as president of the democratically elected National Assembly he has power to hold the position of interim president, “if at the outset of a new term there is no elected head of state.”
New protests broke out on Wednesday in Venezuela in the wake of a move by the nation’s highest court to freeze bank accounts and impose a travel ban on Guaido.
Venezuela’s attorney general announced earlier Tuesday that Guaido was under investigation despite the fact that members of parliament are typically immune from prosecution. Guaido hasn’t formally responded to the attorney general’s investigation or the court’s action.
That Guaido chose to write his op-ed in an American newspaper shows the importance he places on shoring up international, and moreover, US support for his cause.
The Trump administration has been one of Guaido’s most vocal supporters since the crisis began, alongside a handful of democracies throughout Europe and Latin America. The opposition leader thanked Trump via Twitter for calling him to reiterate his “full support of our democratic labor, commitment to humanitarian aid and his administration’s recognition of our (interim) presidency.”
The White House said two men agreed “to maintain regular communication to support Venezuela’s path back to stability, and to rebuild the bilateral relationship between the United States and Venezuela.”
Top Guaido-appointed diplomat in the US, Carlos Vecchio, has been meeting with US officials this week. After meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he told reporters he’s not asking the US for military support.
“We’ve come here to present a very clear agenda internationally,” Vecchio said. “We want to end the usurpation of power of Nicolas Maduro, set a transitional government and call for free and transparent elections as soon as possible.”
Sen. Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said he believes Guaido “has a legitimate, nonviolent plan” to stabilize the situation in Venezuela.
But on Wednesday, US national security adviser John Bolton warned Venezuelan authorities against taking further action targeting Guaido, whom Washington recognizes as the legitimate president. Bolton said there would be “serious consequences” if any harm came to Guaido.
‘A Vietnam in Latin America’
In a series of messages posted to social media Wednesday, Maduro appealed directly to US citizens, asking them to stop the Trump administration from turning Venezuela into “a Vietnam in Latin America.”
“We are a people of peace, with a solid democracy,” Maduro said. “I want to have respectful relations with all the United States. … I ask for peace and respect.”
Maduro previously said he was ready to talk to the opposition but ruled out new presidential elections until 2025, according to excerpts of an interview published by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.
Maduro, who has presided over a severe economic collapse despite the fact that Venezuela boasts the world’s biggest oil reserves, also accused Washington of targeting his country in an attempt to steal its oil wealth.
Previously, he had blamed Washington for the acute food shortages, soaring unemployment and massive hyperinflation that has wiped out savings.
But economists point to years of economic mismanagement as the more likely cause. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, funded huge social welfare programs and price-control policies in an effort to steer the country toward socialism, locking up political opponents and stamping out the opposition in the process.
In his op-ed, Guaido railed against the “severe medicine and food shortages” and the collapse of “essential infrastructure and health systems” in Venezuela that have seen “a growing number of children suffering from malnutrition.”
“Mr. Maduro no longer has the support of the people,” he said.
CNN’s Stefano Pozzebon reported from Caracas and Helen Regan wrote in Hong Kong. CNN’s Josh Berlinger, Hande Atay Alam, Mitchell McCluskey, Sheena McKenzie, Mary Ilyushina, Nathan Hodge, Nick Paton Walsh, Ray Sanchez, Saskya Vandoorne, Claudia Rebaza, Duarte Mendonca and Samantha Beech also contributed to this report.