Self-declared Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido’s supporters and their US backers say he is gaining increasing military support, even as the political standoff with embattled President Nicolas Maduro erupted in violence Friday when security forces at the border killed at least two people.
Guaido backers point to increasing numbers of defections as diplomatic staff outside Venezuela and at least one high level official inside the country have cast their lot with the 35-year-old, US-educated president of the country’s National Assembly. As Guaido’s supporters say they’ll continue to use international aid to pressure Maduro, they are casting the young challenger’s success as inevitable.
“We have an interim president who has the support of the people, that has increasing support of military,” Francisco Marquez, a political adviser to Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s representative in Washington, told CNN.
Eleven of 56 US-based diplomatic officers from the Maduro regime have defected to the Guaido administration, the self-declared interim president’s Ambassador Carlos Vecchio said at a Washington press conference Thursday.
Inside Venezuela, in perhaps the most high-profile defection to date, a former Venezuelan Intelligence chief and current Socialist Party congressman declared his support for Guaido Thursday. In a video posted to his Twitter account, Hugo Carvajal addressed Guaido directly, saying he is “at his service” to help restore peace and democracy to Venezuela.
The public shift in loyalties is buoying confidence in the Guaido camp. “At 30 days, I can tell you we’ve had some really big victories,” Marquez said, referring to the month since Guaido declared himself the country’s leader.
“Two months ago, I think people looked at Venezuela very differently,” Marquez continued. “Now we have an interim president, we have unified democratic forces, we have millions of Venezuelan people on the street, countless defections from the civil and military side.”
“We expect more defections to occur and we expect more and more countries to recognize interim President Guaido,” he added.
More than 50 countries now recognize Guaido, including the US, Spain, Germany, France and Britain along with most of Europe and many South American nations – a bulwark of support that is emboldening Guaido supporters.
“There’s no way to stop the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” Marquez said. “I think the international community is united, the democratic forces in Venezuela are united, and so if the Maduro regime understands this, they’ll make it easier for the transition to occur.”
Vecchio said Thursday that Guaido’s camp is working with countries that have recognized him on next steps for consular services and other embassy functions. And he made clear that everything Maduro’s challengers are doing is being closely coordinated with Washington.
“We are just following legal procedures here. We want to do this jointly with the US,” Vecchio said.
Political tensions appear to be growing more combustible with Friday’s violence. Venezuelan security forces reportedly shot and killed at least two people in a standoff with a local indigenous community at the border with Brazil as they tried to prevent aid from entering the country.
The White House denounced the killings in a statement Friday from press secretary Sarah Sanders, and urged the Venezuelan military to let aid into the country.
“The United States strongly condemns the Venezuelan military’s use of force against unarmed civilians and innocent volunteers on Venezuela’s border with Brazil,” the statement reads, warning that “egregious violation of human rights by Maduro and those who are following his orders will not go unpunished.”
Additionally, national security adviser John Bolton canceled his upcoming trip to South Korea to “focus on events in Venezuela,” National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in a statement Friday.
’This will not stop’
Asked about the deaths Friday, Marquez said, “It’s important to understand where the violence comes from, it really comes from the regime.”
Marquez also said Guaido and his camp will use desperately needed international aid, pre-positioned in Colombia and Brazil with US help, to ratchet up pressure on the regime and drive a wedge between it and the starving populace. The regime has closed key maritime and air entry points in an effort to prevent the aid from entering, even as almost 90% of Venezuelans now live in poverty.
“One of the messages we’re sending both publicly and privately to regime officials is this will not stop,” Marquez said. “It’s going to continue because the Venezuelan people need it. And I think the democratic world is looking very closely to what is going on.”
On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that at Guaido’s request, the second tranche of US humanitarian aid had landed in Colombia. “This aid must be allowed to enter Venezuela and reach people in need,” Pompeo said.
Guaido’s goal, Marquez said, is simply to have free and fair elections. “His whole mandate, to have free and fair elections, is all the pressure that we’re doing, trying to reach a negotiated solution,” he said.
They are also going on the offensive, working with allies to ask countries like Turkey to stop supporting Maduro and publicly discussing Maduro’s exit plan.
“We’re willing to, at this moment, negotiate at an exit, for Maduro and regime officials,” Marquez said. “It will always be our job as an administration and a challenge to balance both the justice and the need for a transition right now. And that’s a challenge, I have to be very upfront about that. But what’s our priority right now? To see the usurpation of power.”
US officials have echoed and amplified the Guaido camp. “We’re happy to talk to Maduro or anybody in his former regime to discuss their exit terms from Venezuela,” national security adviser John Bolton said Monday.
President Donald Trump echoed the sentiment in a speech outside of Miami on Monday, telling Maduro’s supporters that if they don’t reverse course, “you will find no safe harbor, no easy exit, and no way out. You will lose everything.”
Yet it’s not clear how the US would make good on that threat. Even as US officials have reiterated that “all options are on the table,” they seem to have moved away endorsing a military option in Venezuela, stressing instead the diplomatic option.
’A long, hard slog’
State Department special envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told lawmakers last week that was he not aware of any plans or discussions about moving combat troops to Colombia or any other of Venezuela’s neighbors. “We have not threatened military action,” Abrams said.
However, at least one expert said he doesn’t believe military force can be ruled out.
“If Washington grows frustrated with the lack of change or at least rapid change, the question becomes whether Trump reverts and takes unilateral action,” Michael McCarthy, a research fellow on Latin America at American University and CEO of Caracas Wire, told CNN last week.
“That could mean a military option. The President has been very clear that he views that as a plausible play,” he said.
And while Guaido has high levels of global support, McCarthy cautions that “he still does not control any real levers of power.”
“I fear this could still be a long, hard slog,” he said.
CNN’s Jack Guy, Jorge Luis Perez Valery, Claudia Dominguez, Stefano Pozzebon, Jackie Castillo and Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.