Venezuela’s self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido called Sunday for two new protests, in an effort to push the military to turn against leader Nicolas Maduro and back a European ultimatum demanding free elections within the week.
In a video posted on Twitter, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly said the first of the nationwide strikes, on Wednesday from noon to 2:00 pm (1600-1800 GMT), would be one “to demand that the armed forces side with the people.”
The second, on Saturday, will be a “big national and international rally to back the support of the European Union and the ultimatum” from Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands that they would recognize Guaido as interim president unless Maduro calls elections by February 3.
The EU was more vague, saying it would take “further actions” if elections were not called in the coming days, including the issue of recognition of the country’s “leadership.”
Australia, meanwhile, said it “recognizes and supports” Guaido as interim president pending elections. And Italy has called for “a rapid return to democratic legitimacy.”
The United States separately warned there would be a “significant response” if US diplomats, Guaido or the opposition-controlled National Assembly were targeted with violence and intimidation.
Maduro so far has not budged from his position, telling CNN Turk: “No one can give us an ultimatum.”
Nearly 30 people have been killed and more than 350 arrested in clashes with security forces over the past week.
Appeals to the military
Encouraged by the international support for his cause, Guaido is on a mission to weaken the military’s support of Maduro, which has been essential to keeping him in power since 2013.
His appeals have included promises of amnesty, and mass protests to dramatize the depth of popular opposition to Maduro, who has presided over a virtual collapse of the economy and a severe humanitarian crisis, with shortages of food and medicines.
Supporters circulated copies of amnesty measures approved by the National Assembly to friends and relatives in the military, but some soldiers burned or ripped up the document.
Venezuela’s military attache in Washington, Army Colonel Jose Luis Silva, switched his support to Guaido in a video that called on his brothers in arms to follow his lead.
Maduro appeared at a military exercise in the state of Carabobo where he called for “union, discipline and cohesion” to defeat what he called an “attempted coup d’etat.”
“Traitors never, loyal always,” he exhorted the military audience. Televised images showed tanks lined up in a row and soldiers firing their weapons.
“Are you coup-backers or are you constitutionalists? Are you pro-imperialist or anti-imperialists?” Maduro asked.
Thus far, the military has backed the leftist regime, which was ushered into power more than 20 years ago by the late Hugo Chavez, but there have been some signs of unrest.
Playing down military intervention
Guaido, 35, heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly and declared himself acting president in Caracas on Wednesday during an anti-government rally by tens of thousands of people.
He contends that Maduro’s reelection to a second six-year term was fraudulent.
His bid was swiftly endorsed by Canada, the United States and many Latin American countries.
“Any violence and intimidation against US diplomatic personnel, Venezuela’s democratic leader, Juan Guaido, or the National Assembly itself would represent a grave assault on the rule of law and will be met with a significant response,” US National Security Advisor John Bolton tweeted, without specifying what kind of response he meant.
The warning didn’t address specific groups or individuals, but Bolton noted in a linked tweet that Cuba’s “support and control over Maduro’s security and paramilitary forces” was well known.
Washington also accepted exiled opposition leader Carlos Vecchio as Venezuela’s new charge d’affaires to the United States after he was tapped by Guaido.
Pope Francis, winding up a trip to Panama, said he was praying that “a just and peaceful solution is reached to overcome the crisis, respecting human rights.”
Maduro has received backing from China, Russia, Syria and Turkey, as well as longtime allies Cuba and Bolivia.
In Washington, Republican Senator Marco Rubio, considered a key architect of the US policy on Venezuela, played down the possibility of a military intervention despite his and Trump’s warnings earlier in the week that “all options are on the table.”
The Venezuelan leader earlier had given US diplomats until late Saturday to leave the country.
But as the deadline expired, Maduro said he had begun negotiations to set up within 30 days an Interests Section in Caracas to maintain a minimum level of diplomatic contact, similar to the arrangement the US had with Cuba until their 2015 rapprochement.