CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – Venezuela’s opposition leader called on more members of the military to abandon the country’s socialist government following last Saturday’s defection of a high-ranking general, while President Nicolas Maduro proposed holding early National Assembly elections that could potentially oust his challenger.
Maduro’s call for early legislative voting is likely to intensify his standoff with rival Juan Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled National Assembly and is demanding a new presidential election. Guaido declared himself Venezuela’s legitimate ruler on January 23, and has the support of Washington and most South American nations.
Speaking from behind a podium decorated with Venezuela’s presidential seal, Guaido told supporters he would keep his opposition movement in the streets until Maduro stopped “usurping” the presidency and agreed to a presidential election overseen by international observers. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Venezuelans joined opposition protests against Maduro in Caracas and other cities.
Guaido called on “blocks” of the military to defect from Maduro’s administration and “get on the side of the Venezuelan people.”
“We don’t just want you to stop shooting at protesters,” Guaido said in a hoarse voice. “We want you to be part of the reconstruction of Venezuela.”
He said that in the coming days, the opposition would try to move humanitarian aid into the country by land and sea along three border points, including the Colombian city of Cucuta. He described the move as a “test” for Venezuela’s armed forces, which will have to choose if they allow the much needed aid to pass, or if they instead obey the orders of Maduro’s government.
Maduro also dug in his heels, insisting he was the only president of Venezuela and describing Saturday’s anti-government protests as part of a United States (US)-led coup attempt.
“I agree that the legislative power of the country be re-legitimised and that we hold free elections with guarantees, and the people choose a new National Assembly,” Maduro said at a pro-government demonstration in Caracas.
The opposition controls the National Assembly while government supporters control the more-powerful Constituent Assembly, so calls for a vote to replace the former and not the latter was seen as a move against Guaido.
The socialist leader also had words for the administration of President Donald Trump which recently imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports in an effort to undermine Maduro’s main source of income and weaken his grip on power.
“Do you think you are the emperor of the world?” he asked Trump. “Do you think Venezuela is going to give up and obey your orders? We will not surrender.”
The standoff comes amid what appears to be growing dissension among the ranks of Venezuela’s powerful military.
Earlier Saturday, a Venezuelan air force general defected from Maduro’s administration and called on his compatriots to participate in protests against the socialist leader’s rule.
General Francisco Yanez is the first high ranking officer to leave Maduro’s government since January 23, when Guaido declared himself the country’s legitimate leader by invoking two articles of the Venezuelan constitution that he argues give him the right to assume presidential powers.