Dueling Venezuela leaders dig in defending presidency claims

President Nicolas Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup

The Venezuelan opposition leader who has declared himself interim president appeared in public Friday for the first time in days and vowed to remain on the streets to usher in a transitional government, while President Nicolas Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.

In one of the dueling press conferences, Juan Guaido urged thousands of supporters gathered in a Caracas plaza to hold a mass protest again next week as he moves forward with proposals of amnesty for military leaders and the arrival of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Maduro spoke at the same time before a room of journalists and decried what he called a coup against his government.

Each man appeared ready to defend his claim to the presidency no matter the cost, with Guaido telling his followers that if he is arrested then they should “stay the course” and peacefully protest for change.

“As the famous phrase goes, ‘You can cut the flower but you cannot keep spring from coming,’” Guaido said.

The troubled South American nation has plunged into a new chapter of political turmoil this week after tens of thousands of Venezuelans frustrated with their nation’s crippling economic and humanitarian crisis took to the streets demanding Maduro step down in a rally of support for Guaido as he took a symbolic oath to become the interim president.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s office said Friday that it had credible reports that security forces or members of pro-government armed groups had shot at least 20 people during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday. It called for an investigation into the violence. The non-profit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict has said gunfire during protests and looting left 21 dead between Wednesday and early Thursday.

The Trump administration quickly recognized Guaido, and a defiant Maduro announced he was breaking ties with the United States hours later, accusing the American leader of meddling in Venezuela’s affairs. Some U.S. diplomats began exiting Venezuela on Friday. Maduro has also called home all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and closed its embassy in Washington Thursday.

Backed by Venezuela’s military, Maduro has refused to show any hint he’s ready to cede power, setting up a potentially explosive struggle, though he said Friday that he remains open to talking with the opposition. The government and opposition held talks that fell apart last year, with the opposition saying they would only agree to an accord allowing a fair election.

The election last year was criticized by much of the international community because Maduro’s most popular opponents were barred from running and it lacked basic guarantees like a team of impartial observers.

“Today, tomorrow and always I am committed to dialogue,” Maduro said.

READ MORE: Venezuelan president orders U.S. diplomats out of the country

Besides the U.S., Canada, much of Latin America and many countries in Europe have thrown their support behind Guaido. Trump has promised to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.

Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour by his opponents and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.

China’s Foreign Ministry called on the U.S. to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Guaido’s declaration “an attempted coup” backed by the U.S.

Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia’s political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.

At an emergency meeting Thursday, 16 nations from the Organization of American States recognized Guaido as interim president. But the International Monetary Fund has said it will follow the position of its member states, which have come down on both sides of the question.

Attention was focused on Venezuela’s military, a traditional arbiter of political disputes in the country, as a critical indicator of whether the opposition will succeed in setting up a new government.

Venezuela’s military brass pledged unwavering support to Maduro, delivering vows of loyalty Thursday before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.

A half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing Washington of meddling in Venezuela’s affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader’s rule.

Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, dismissed efforts to install a “de-facto parallel government” as tantamount to a coup.

“It’s not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems,” he said. “It’s dialogue.”

Guaido’s father, who has lived in Spain for the last 16 years, has called on the military to drop its allegiance to Maduro.

Wilmer Guaido, a taxi driver on the island of Tenerife, told private Antena 3 television Friday that Venezuela’s armed forces should be loyal to the country, but not to a specific leader.

“(Simon) Bolivar used to curse against soldiers who give their back to the people,” Guaido said, referring to Venezuela’s independence hero. “I think the military should choose the right side of history.”

Juan Guaido has said he needs the backing of three key groups: The people, the international community and the military. While Thursday’s protest drew tens of thousands to the streets and over a dozen nations in the region pledged support, the military’s backing is crucial.

Although many rank-and-file troops suffer the same hardships as countless other Venezuelans when it comes to basic needs like feeding their families, Maduro has worked to cement their support with bonuses and other special benefits.

In a video earlier this week, Guaido said the constitution requires the military to disavow Maduro after his May 2018 re-election, which was widely condemned by the international community because his main opponents were banned from running.

But there were no signs that security forces were widely heeding Guaido’s call to go easy on demonstrators.

Many Venezuelans are awaiting Guaido’s guidance on the often-beleaguered opposition’s next steps.

A virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, Guaido has reignited opposition hopes by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela’s crushing economic crisis. He escalated his campaign Wednesday by declaring the constitution gives him, as president of the congress, the authority to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.

Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed.

Scott Smith And Joshua Goodman, The Associated Press

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