POSTED AT 08:02 AM 26-01-2019
Military backs Maduro, U.N. Chief urges dialogue
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (L) Members of the top military brass and Venezuela’s National Assembly President Juan Guaidó (Inset).
VENEZUELA: Venezuela’s powerful military threw its weight behind Nicolas Maduro on Thursday as the US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido pressed a direct challenge to his authority, and the fate of the crisis-wracked country hung in the balance.
As the death toll from days of street protests jumped to 26, a defiant Maduro announced the closure of Venezuela’s embassy and consulates in the United States, a day after President Donald Trump’s administration declared his regime “illegitimate.”
Meanwhile, UN Chief Antonio Guterres on Thursday appealed for dialogue to stop Venezuela’s political crisis spiralling out of control, after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.
“What we hope is that dialogue can be possible, and that we avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster for the people of Venezuela and for the region,” he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
“Sovereign governments have the possibility to decide whatever they want,” the UN secretary-general said on a Facebook Live broadcast from Davos. “What we are worried (about)... is the suffering of the people of Venezuela,” he said.
The oil-rich but economically devastated country was plunged into uncertainty Wednesday when Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, proclaimed himself “acting president” -- earning swift endorsement from Washington and a dozen regional powers including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia.
Maduro’s reelection last year was contested by the opposition, and criticized internationally -- but the socialist leader has until now retained the loyalty of the powerful military, whose response was being keenly watched.
Flanked by military top brass, the country’s Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino, himself a general, declared the 56-year-old Maduro “the legitimate President” -- and vowed to defend his authority against an attempted “coup d’etat.” Following Padrino’s lead, eight generals in turn reiterated their “absolute loyalty and subordination” to the socialist leader in messages carried on state television. In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kept up the pressure on the leftist leader, as the United States called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.
A furious Maduro on Wednesday issued US diplomats a 72-hour deadline to leave the country, and on Thursday said he was recalling all Venezuelan diplomats from the United States.
The State Department meanwhile ordered its non-emergency staff to leave Venezuela but refused to comply with a full expulsion, saying it would maintain diplomatic ties with “the government of interim President Guaido.” Trump meanwhile has openly mused about military intervention in Venezuela, saying “all options are on the table,” and analysts suggest he could consider further economic sanctions against the country, a third of whose oil production goes to the US. Outside South America, the United States has been joined by Canada and Britain in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader, while France has also rejected Maduro’s legitimacy.
But both Russia and China and have thrown their weight behind the embattled Maduro.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called Maduro to express support, charging that the “crisis has been provoked from the outside.”
China, Venezuela’s main creditor, opposed “interference in Venezuelan affairs by external forces.” Maduro has retained the support of Mexico, Cuba and Bolivia, all led by leftist governments.