On Saturday morning, just before massive pro-opposition demonstrations were set to take place across Venezuela, a high-ranking military officer published a surprising YouTube video.
Dressed in uniform, acting Venezuelan air force Gen. Francisco Yanez looked at the camera and announced he was throwing his support behind Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who declared himself interim president last month.
Political chaos has erupted since Guaidó’s announcement, but the Venezuelan military has stood by President Nicolás Maduro, who took office in 2013. But in the video, Yanez claims that “90 percent of the armed forces are not with the dictator.”
Yanez is now the highest ranking military official to defect from Maduro’s side to Guaidó’s, raising questions as to whether he is an outlier or if others will follow his lead. Last month, Col. José Luis Silva, the defense attache at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, also declared his support for Guaidó.
The United States and a number of other countries have backed Guaidó, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has been outspoken in his support for the opposition leader. On Saturday Rubio tweeted the video of Yanez, claiming that at least seven “other high ranking officers want to do the same but are still in fear.”
He also tweeted a video saying the national police “refuses to repress marchers. Watch as at least one [officer] hugs one of the marchers,” he wrote. “This is why Maduro is using those death squads. The police, national guard & military rank & file will not attack their families & neighbors.”
Venezuela has been in crisis for much of Maduro’s time in office, as hyperinflation made the prices of food and medicine soar, prompting a humanitarian crisis and an exodus of Venezuelans. Despite the chaos at home, Maduro won reelection in a widely contested vote last May, which Vice President Pence called “a sham."
In the video published Saturday, Yanez claims Maduro is prepared to flee the country, and then urges him to consider doing so.
“The transition to democracy is imminent,” he said. “The people have already suffered enough."
The Venezuelan air force’s Twitter account responded to the YouTube video by publishing an image of it — edited to include the word “traitor” on Yanez’s face. “We have to highlight that he has no command over troops and less so over air force units,” the account wrote. “He has no leadership at the air force and was only serving planning functions.”
Yanez verified to the Associated Press in a phone call on Saturday that it is he who appears in the video and that he would not make further comments on his views until Guaidó, whom he called “the commander in chief of the legal armed force,” gave him the go-ahead to do so.
On Saturday, national security adviser John Bolton tweeted that the United States “calls on all military members to follow General Yanez’s lead, and to protect the peaceful protestors supporting democracy.”
He also wrote that the Venezuelan military should “stand on the side of the Venezuelan people.”
Rival protests took place in Venezuela on Saturday, with Maduro’s supporters joining him for a celebration that marked 20 years since his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, took power. Much larger crowds appeared to take to the streets in opposition protests throughout the country, with estimates that crowds could be in the hundreds of thousands.
“The military and the world take note: There are many, many people filling the streets of Venezuela today,” Guaidó said in a speech addressing a crowd that supports him. “This movement is historic and unstoppable.” He also urged more of the military to defect, telling them to “get on the side of the Venezuelan people.”