Tensions were high in Venezuela on Tuesday and violent clashes erupted as a bold move to overthrow the contentious government of President Nicolas Maduro appeared to falter.
Declaring that the “final phase” of Operation Freedom was underway, emboldened opposition leader Juan Guaido launched a wave of protests in the crisis-stricken country with a video filmed next to La Carlota military base early Tuesday morning. He stood beside armed troops and former political prisoner Leopoldo Lopez, who had been under house arrest since 2014 and was freed on Tuesday.
“The moment is now,” Guaido announced in the video.
Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, boldly declared himself interim president of Venezuela in January and has pressed for Maduro to step down from power. The country is in an economic and humanitarian crisis marked by chronic shortages of food and medicine. The United States and dozens of other countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.
Violent clashes broke out around the country on Tuesday between Guaido supporters and forces loyal to Maduro. Videos on social media Tuesday afternoon showed heavily armed government forces cracking down on civilians, including horrific footage of an armored military vehicle running into protesters.
By early evening, several people had been injured and a young woman had been shot, but her condition was not immediately clear, according to local media reports. Witnesses told El Nacional newspaper that a shooter opened fire from the headquarters of the transportation department in the capital city Caracas.
Maduro and his allies, including military chiefs, fought back what they described as an attempted coup by a small group of traitors.
As hundreds of Maduro supporters rallied near the presidential palace, the country’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino, appeared on national television to denounce the “savage” U.S.backed opposition. Padrino said the rebellion was small and was being defeated.
Earlier on Tuesday, Guaido claimed that members of the military had joined him, and he urged the “military family” and public servants to support protesters and “immediately cover the streets” of Venezuela.
“The national armed forces have made the right decision. They have the support of the Venezuelan people, with the endorsement of our constitution, with the guarantee of being on the right side of the story,” Guaido said.
Lopez, who was serving a 14-year sentence, said members of the security forces followed an order from Guaido to release him from detention. The Chilean Embassy in Caracas said Lopez and his family sought refugee status there Tuesday afternoon.
“We are with you!” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted to the opposition. Pence, who has a highly visible role in the Trump administration’s effort to persuade Maduro to
surrender power, told the opposition, “America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored.”
Anti-censorship groups said Maduro’s government had restricted access to several websites, including Google, YouTube and Bing. CNN said it was taken off the air in the country.
In addition to food and medicine shortages, the South American oil producer is grappling with hyperinflation, blackouts and a malaria outbreak.
Under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the U.S. has increased pressure on Maduro to allow Guaido to oversee a transition of power, claiming Maduro’s 2018 reelection was invalid. The Socialist leader, considered a dictator by many countries, has been in power since 2013, following the death of Hugo Chavez. Pompeo on Tuesday stood by Guaido, calling for the “illegitimate regime” to step outside.
“Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad,” Pompeo said on Twitter. “The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated.”
Pompeo later told CNN that Maduro’s plane was on the tarmac and he was ready to leave Tuesday morning until Russian officials told him he should stay.
Russia, one of Maduro’s key allies, called on the opposition to stand down.
John Bolton, President Trump’s national security adviser, urged Venezuela’s defense minister to support the uprising and order the National Bolivarian Armed Forces to protect Venezuelans.
“If this effort fails, they will sink into a dictatorship from which there are very few possible alternatives,” Bolton said at the White House. He denied that the U.S. had any role in the revolt and said Tuesday’s uprising was not a coup.