The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Venezuela’s Maduro denies Pompeo’s claim that he sought to escape to Cuba after day of clashes that left 1 dead, dozens hurt

Dozens of protesters were injured in clashes as Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced the "final phase" against President Nicolás Maduro. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — Violent clashes erupted across Venezuela on Tuesday after opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched what he described as a military-backed challenge to President Nicolás Maduro, summoning thousands of people to the streets to demonstrate against the socialist leader.

It was a high-risk gamble for Guaidó, the leader of the National Assembly, who declared himself interim president of Venezuela in January. And by late Tuesday, it was unclear whether it would succeed.

A 25-year-old man died, and dozens of people were injured by rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition in melees across Venezuela, according to local observers and hospital officials. The death, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a nonprofit that tracks protests, happened when a man was shot in the chest during a protest in the interior state of Aragua, said Marco Ponce, the group’s director. 

An armored vehicle ran into a cluster of Guaidó supporters. A group of hooded men in a pro-government militia — the feared colectivos — fired live ammunition into a crowd of protesters, witnesses said. And a colonel loyal to Maduro was shot in the neck, the defense minister said, but the extent of his injuries was unclear.

President Trump accused Cuban “Troops and Militia” of conducting military operations in the country to cause “death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela.” If the alleged activities didn’t immediately stop, Trump tweeted, his administration would impose a “full and complete embargo, together with the highest-level sanctions,” on Cuba.

There were protests across the nation Tuesday, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, and violent clashes in at least five states. At least 25 people were detained Tuesday, according to Foro Penal, a local organization that tracks political detentions.

Guaidó opened the day with a surprise appearance at a military base in eastern Caracas, where he was joined by fellow opposition politician Leopoldo López, freed earlier Tuesday from house arrest. They were surrounded by a small band of armed men in military uniforms wearing blue armbands to show their support.

Guaidó urged other troops to join what he called the final stage of “Operation Liberty” to force Maduro from power.

“People of Venezuela, the end of usurpation has arrived,” Guaidó said. “At this moment, I am with the main military units of our armed forces, starting the final phase of Operation Liberty. People of Venezuela, we will go to the street with the armed forces to continue taking the streets until we consolidate the end of usurpation, which is already irreversible.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Maduro had been prepared to flee the country for Havana on Tuesday.

“He had an airplane on the tarmac, he was ready to leave this morning as we understand it, and the Russians indicated he should stay,” Pompeo told CNN. He said “senior leaders” loyal to Maduro told U.S. officials that they were prepared to leave.

National security adviser John Bolton named officials who he said had been in secret talks with Guaidó, including Defense Minister Vladi­mir Padrino López. In an apparent attempt to divide Maduro’s government, he called on Padrino and others to keep their “commitment” to help oust the president.

Bolton said that the United States favored a “peaceful transfer of power” but that “all options are on the table.” He declined to elaborate.

Earlier Tuesday, Padrino appeared on live television, dressed in combat fatigues, beneath a massive portrait of Maduro to denounce the protests.

“Here, Venezuelans, you have your armed forces,” he said. “We ask that you don’t fall under the ‘fake news’ that is trying to confuse you. . . . We are protecting you.”

Making his first public appearance since the chaotic events began to unfold, Maduro went on state TV late Tuesday, looking tired but calm and denouncing what he labeled a “foolish” and “failed” coup instigated by the United States. Flanked by top government and military officials, he called for a mass demonstration of supporters on Wednesday and denied Pompeo’s assertion that he was preparing to leave Caracas on Tuesday. 

“Mike Pompeo said — how crazy can things get? — that I, Maduro, had a plane ready to escape to Cuba and that the Russians prohibited me from leaving,” Maduro said. “Mr. Pompeo, please. Such a lack of seriousness. Mr. Bolton gave orders to high-ranking officers to join the coup that was overcome in Venezuela. . . . Dear God, how far will the U.S. go?”

He mentioned Guaidó and López by name before announcing prosecutors would investigate “these great crimes against the constitution.” Maduro claimed that of those military personnel who had rallied to the opposition’s side Tuesday, most quickly returned to post, leaving a group of “20 or so” siding with the opposition.

Yet, suggesting cracks in his inner circle, Maduro announced a replacement for Gen. Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, chief of the feared intelligence police, known as the SEBIN. Earlier in the day, Figuera circulated an open letter, whose authenticity was confirmed by a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. In the letter, Figuera — whose wife is now in the United States, the official said — lamented Venezuela’s sharp decline, adding that “it would be irresponsible to blame only the North American empire” for this.

Figuera appeared to be in hiding after lending support to the opposition’s cause, the U.S. official said. Earlier in the day, Maduro — who did not otherwise appear in public Tuesday — had insisted that the military remained loyal to him.

“Steel nerves,” he wrote in a tweet. “I have talked to commanders in all the regions of the country and they’ve manifested their total loyalty to the People, the Constitution, and the Homeland. I call for maximum popular mobilization to ensure the victory of peace. We will win!”

The clashes Tuesday followed weeks of tension in Venezuela. The oil-rich nation, once South America’s wealthiest, has been paralyzed by the political stalemate and a growing humanitarian crisis. Hyperinflation, rising crime, power outages, and shortages of medical supplies, food and water have reduced life for many to a daily struggle to survive. Millions have fled the country.

As a video spread of Guaidó’s appearance at La Carlota military base in the Altamira district of Caracas, Maduro’s communications minister tweeted that the government was moving to confront a “coup” by a “reduced group of military officials who are traitors.” Diosdado Cabello, a leading pro-Maduro politician, called government supporters to Miraflores, the presidential palace, and warned of a “counterattack.”

Soon, Internet services in Venezuela were “restricted,” according to NetBlocks, an organization that tracks connection and electricity services, and people were heading to the streets.

Guaidó called his supporters to La Carlota. When they arrived, they were met by tear gas canisters. It was not immediately clear who fired the gas. Video from the scene showed tear gas arcing over a bridge congested with protesters, and troops loyal to Maduro shooting into the sky.

Hernando Perez was just getting to work in Caracas on Tuesday morning when he learned of Guaidó’s call to protest. He joined the opposition supporters.

“This needs to change. Everyone knows it,” the 35-year-old businessman said. “We are always scared to be in the streets, but this is part of Guaidó’s process.”

Guaidó left La Carlota before 10 a.m. for nearby Plaza Altamira. Surrounded by troops, he led supporters in singing the Venezuelan national anthem. By late morning, about 5,000 people had arrived, some chanting, “Yes, we can.”

About a dozen troops were present.

“Today, it’s clear that the armed forces are with Venezuela and not with the dictator,” Guaidó told supporters. “The coup is being led by Maduro.”

‘We keep fighting’: Stories of resilience from across Venezuela

Guaidó and the military men protecting him then moved toward west Caracas, which was once a stronghold of support for Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, but has increasingly turned against the socialist government this year.

Guaidó and his supporters had no plan to descend upon the presidential palace, a Guaidó spokesman said. As people gathered on Francisco de Miranda Avenue, a militia opened fire, causing confusion and terror, but thousands remained on the streets.

At La Carlota, Guaidó called for “nonviolent” action, but his actions posed perhaps the most significant challenge to Maduro since Guaidó invoked constitutional powers and declared himself interim president. His claim has been recognized by the United States and more than 50 other nations.

Vice President Pence, Pompeo and Bolton all tweeted support for Guaidó; the Treasury Department offered “sanctions relief” to officials aligned with Maduro who switched their loyalties to Guaidó.

Bolivia and Cuba, whose leftist governments support Maduro, condemned what they called a coup. Russia and China also back Maduro.

Shannon O’Neil, a Venezuela expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, described the uprising as a high-risk move.

“If Guaidó and López fail to split the military and rally top brass to their cause, then a big question is what happens to them personally and to the opposition cause more broadly,” she said. “They could end up tonight in jail or worse. They are taking a huge leap today.”

López, a longtime opposition member who has emerged as a key mentor to Guaidó, said he escaped from house arrest with the help of guards. His appearance with Guaidó on Tuesday signified a defiant break from government authority.

“The final phase for the end of usurpation has arrived,” López tweeted. “I have been freed by military men of the constitution, and of President Guaidó. I’m at the La Carlota Base. We have to mobilize. It’s time to conquer freedom.”

Hours later, Roberto Ampuero, Chile’s minister of foreign affairs, said López and his family had entered the Chilean Embassy in Caracas “as guests.” But late Tuesday, Ampuero said in a tweet that Lopez and his family — who are of Spanish ancestry — had left for the Embassy of Spain. 

 “It’s a personal decision, considering that our embassy already had other guests,” Ampuero tweeted, referring to at least one other opposition official who had already sought sanctuary there. 

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, offered political asylum to 25 members of Venezuela’s military, according to a report in the Brazilian publication Folha de São Paulo.

Guaidó has said that numerous military officials support him and that he would release a list of their names. “We have generals, lieutenants,” he said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has strongly backed Guaidó, called for the military to rise up: “This is the moment for those military officers in #Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President @jguaido, in this effort to restore democracy,” he tweeted. “You can write history in the hours & days ahead.”

Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the New York-based Americas Society and Council of the Americas, called Guaidó’s action a “bold, dramatic effort to force the issue, recapture initiative and require the Maduro regime to act.”

He said the fact that López was at large could be a big challenge for the government.

“The regime is afraid of López, which is why they have kept him under arrest,” Farnsworth said. “He is Guaidó’s patron and would be a key figure in a free Venezuela. ‎ “Springing him from arrest and engaging directly with the military will present the regime with a real dilemma: Let him remain free in defiance of the regime to rally popular support, or attempt to jail him again, which the people may very well resist.”

Faiola reported from Panama City and McCoy from Washington. Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City, and John Hudson, Karen DeYoung, Carol Morello and Michael Brice-Saddler in Washington contributed to this report.

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