US diplomats are heading to the airport in Caracas amid reports of the arrival of 400 Russian mercenaries flown in to support President Nicolas Maduro against an opposition leader who wants to replace him.
A letter from a US embassy security officer requesting a police escort for a caravan of 10 vehicles was leaked earlier in the day and published on social media by a journalist for state-owned TV network Telesur. Its authenticity was confirmed by a US source.
A defiant Mr Maduro called all Venezuelan diplomats home from the US and closed its embassy in Washington on Thursday, a day after ordering all US diplomats out of the country by the weekend.
Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido, pictured, spoke today at a rally in front of tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Caracas as the crisis in the country worsened
President Nicolas Maduro, pictured, gave a press conference today at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas
Thousands of people took to the streets today to protest against Maduro’s leadership in the city centre Caracas
Guaido, pictured, who is head of the National Assembly, proclaimed himself ‘acting president’ on Wednesday
That followed President Donald Trump’s decision to support the claim to power by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Washington has refused to comply with Mr Maduro’s order but has ordered non-essential staff to leave the country, citing security concerns.
The Trump administration said Mr Maduro’s order is not legal because the US no longer recognises him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
US President Donald Trump warned ‘all options are on the table’ to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro out of power.
Staff at the US embassy are leaving the country amid reports of the arrival of Russian mercenaries to protect Mr Maduro.
The oil-rich but economically devastated country was plunged into uncertainty on Wednesday when Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, proclaimed himself ‘acting president’.
He gained swift endorsement from Washington and a dozen regional powers including Brazil, Argentina and Colombia. But with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance, the battle between Mr Maduro and Guaido has set up a potentially explosive struggle for power.
A caravan of large vehicles leave Simon Bolivar international airport after dropping off U.S. embassy employees and their families in La Guaira, Venezuela, today
U.S. embassy employees and their families prepare to depart Simon Bolivar international airport in La Guaira, Venezuela, today amid the political turmoil in the country
Venezuelan news channels posted videos on social media of the caravan of US diplomatic vehicles leaving Caracas airport after dropping off the officials as they returned home
US president Donald Trump (right) has warned ‘all options are on the table’ to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro (left) out of power
Mr Maduro – backed by the country’s military – has gone on the offensive calling home all Venezuelan diplomats from the United States and closing its embassy on Thursday, a day after ordering all US diplomats out of Venezuela by the weekend.
Washington has refused to comply, but ordered its non-essential staff to leave the tumultuous country, citing security concerns. The Trump administration says Mr Maduro’s order is not legal because the US no longer recognises him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
The US President 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.
Maduro said Thursday he was open to holding talks to resolve the crisis and was ready to meet Guaido.
Meanwhile, United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for an independent investigation into alleged excessive use of force by Venezuelan security forces, citing reports of at least 20 people killed this week.
‘I am extremely concerned that the situation in Venezuela may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences’, Bachelet, a former president of Chile, said in a statement issued in Geneva.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has given Guaido his endorsement but stopped just short of recognising him as the new President, while Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said last year’s Venezuelan elections were ‘neither free nor fair’.
In Britain, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said it was ‘clear that Nicholas Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela’.
‘The United Kingdom believes Juan Guaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. We are supporting the U.S., Canada, Brazil and Argentina to make that happen,’ he said.
With the fate of the crisis-plagued South American nation hanging in the balance, the battle between Mr Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido sets up a potentially explosive struggle for power
Injured: A protester is left with blood on his face after the clashes in Caracas which saw tens of thousands of Venezuelans gather to protest against Nicolas Maduro’s rule
Rivals: Juan Guaido (left), President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who has declared himself the country’s interim President, and current leader Nicolas Maduro (right), who has vowed to fight on and hit back at Donald Trump
PM Theresa May’s spokesman earlier said: ‘The 2018 presidential election in Venezuela was neither free nor fair, so the regime’s basis for power is deeply flawed.
‘In relation to the US, we think it’s totally unacceptable for Venezuela to cut off diplomatic ties. The Venezuelan government needs to respect the authority of the National Assembly. The solution to this crisis lies in working to find a peaceful and diplomatic solution, not in expulsions.’
As the death toll from days of street protests jumped to 26, Mr Maduro accused the US of leading a ‘major provocation against Venezuela’.
‘They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,’ he said in an address on state TV.
EU countries are drafting an appeal for Venezuela’s leader Nicolas Maduro to call quick elections, with some demanding recognition of Juan Guaido as interim president if he does not, diplomats said.
‘We want an immediate call for elections in the near future,’ one diplomat said following a meeting of European Union ambassadors who discussed wording for a new and tougher declaration.
Meanwhile, all eyes were on Mr Guaido whose whereabouts have been a mystery since the 35-year-old was symbolically sworn in on Wednesday before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, promising to uphold the constitution and rid Venezuela of Mr Maduro’s dictatorship.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, he told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Mr Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.
Crisis: A map showing Venezuela where the political turmoil has erupted in recent days after Nicolas Maduro was sworn in for a second term earlier this month, following a disputed election victory last year
Maduro was pictured smiling as he attended the opening ceremony of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice amid the ongoing political crisis
Venezuela and the United States: A timeline of their relations as Nicolas Maduro battles for power
1835: Washington establishes diplomatic relations with Venezuela, after the South American country gains independence from Spain. U.S. policy in Latin America is grounded in the Monroe Doctrine of opposing European intervention in the region.
1902: President Theodore Roosevelt defuses a crisis in Venezuela after European nations including Britain and Germany imposed a blockade over unpaid debts. His idea of an ‘international police power’ becomes known as the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine.
1914: Venezuela opens its first major oilfield, giving it crucial strategic value to the United States. Further oil sources are discovered during the course of World War I. By the late 1920s it was one of the world’s leading oil exporters.
1942: The country is granted $4million of military equipment under Lend-Lease during World War II. It is one of more than 40 nations offered aid in the scheme, which began before the U.S. entered the war.
1950: A U.S. State Department paper says: ‘All policies toward Venezuela are affected in greater or less degree by the objective of assuring an adequate supply of petroleum for the U.S.’. The document also lists Venezuelan iron ore deposits as being of strategic interest to Washington.
1959: Democratically-elected leader Romulo Betancourt takes power in Venezuela after the fall of a military dictatorship, and is, regarded by the U.S. as an anti-Communist ally during the Cold War. The countries remain broadly aligned until 1999.
1973: U.S. backing for a military coup in Chile – in which army chief Augusto Pinochet overthrows democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende – becomes a symbol of Washington’s interventionism in Latin America.
1974: Venezuela restores diplomatic relations with Washington’s Cold War enemy, Cuba. They had earlier been cut off under Betancourt’s doctrine of denying recognition to undemocratic regimes.
1997: Bill Clinton’s White House describes Venezuela as a ‘close’ partner thanks to their oil trade, with a ‘strong mutual commitment to democracy’. For a time in the 1990s Venezuela is the largest oil exporter to the United States. It marks the last high point of Washington’s relationship with Caracas.
1999: Venezuela lurches to the left as anti-American socialist Hugo Chavez – who had attempted a coup in 1992 – becomes President. It is the start of two decades of worsening relations with Washington.
Hugo Chavez at the UN in 2006 where he called Bush ‘the devil’
2002: Chavez is briefly toppled by a coup before returning to power. He accuses the United States of involvement in the attempted overthrow, claiming the CIA knew about it in advance. Loyalists in the military return Chavez to power after interim president Pedro Carmona dissolved the constitution.
2003: The Venezuelan leader opposes the American-led invasion of Iraq, saying in November that year it had led to ‘terrible destablization’ and violence’. The war escalates tensions between Chavez and George W. Bush.
2006: President Chavez calls George W. Bush ‘the devil’ during a speech at the United Nations in New York, saying the podium still ‘smelled of sulphur’ after the 43rd U.S. President had spoken there the day before.
2009: Barack Obama meets Chavez in Trinidad and Tobago in a bid to improve relations. Obama, who had recently been sworn in, defends his ‘polite conversation’ with the Venezuelan leader but he is slammed by U.S. Republicans for bolstering ‘enemies of America’.
2013: Hugo Chavez dies on March 5, aged 58, just months after winning re-election to another term, defeating centrist candidate Henrique Capriles. Nicolas Maduro, running to continue his mentor’s policies, wins the resulting presidential election by less than two per cent. In his inaugural speech he attacks Washington’s ‘imperialism’.
2015: Obama declares Venezuela a security threat, accusing the country’s government of persecuting opponents, arbitrary detentions, violating human rights and ‘significant public corruption’. The U.S. Treasury Department also orders sanctions on seven named Venezuelan officials.
2017: Maduro forms a new Constituent Assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, seen as an effort to target and imprison opposition leaders. Opponents said the electoral system was rigged in favour of the government. The U.S. government does not recognise the assembly.
2019: Donald Trump recognises opposition leader Juan Guaido after he declared himself interim President. It comes amid nationwide protests after Maduro was sworn in for a second term following a disputed election victory in May 2018, which opponents said was achieved by vote-rigging. Maduro vows to fight on and is backed by the country’s military chiefs.
‘Amnesty is on the table,’ said Mr Guaido, who just weeks earlier was named head of the opposition-controlled congress.
‘Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order.’
Besides the United States, much of the international community rallied behind Mr Guaido, with Canada and numerous Latin American and European countries announcing that they recognised his claim to the presidency.
Mr Trump promised to use the ‘full weight’ of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
More than 350 people in Venezuela have been arrested this week during demonstrations against Maduro’s government, the UN rights chief said Friday, calling for ‘immediate talks’ to ease tensions.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said her office had ‘reports of large-scale detention of demonstrators – well over 350 in total (this week), including 320 on 23 January alone’.
Mr Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour by his opponents, and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Meanwhile, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Mr Maduro’s government.
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, Defense 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.
And the Supreme Court – made up of regime loyalists – doubled down by reaffirming its allegiance to Maduro’s ‘legitimate authority.’
‘A coup is brewing in Venezuela with the consent of foreign governments,’ charged the court’s president Maikel Moreno.
In a Skype interview with Univision, Guaido said he did not rule out including Maduro in an amnesty he is offering for military and civilian officials who lead a transition in Venezuela. But he said such an option would have to be evaluated because, he said, Maduro is responsible for the death of protesters.
Analysts at the Eurasia Group consultancy noted that while international recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president cemented his position as the main opposition leader, he had failed to win over senior elements of the military.
In that light, ‘Maduro’s fall does not appear imminent,’ the analysts wrote.
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.
‘The time for debate is done. The regime of former president Nicolas Maduro is illegitimate,’ Pompeo said in a speech to the Organization of American States, warning him against the use of force towards demonstrators.
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 found rare support from the Democratic Party over Venezuela, but one prominent dissenting voice was independent Senator Bernie Sanders.
‘We must learn the lessons of the past and not be in the business of regime change or supporting coups – as we have in Chile, Guatemala, Brazil and the Dominican Republic,’ the 2016 presidential hopeful said in a statement, while also condemning Venezuela’s crackdown on protesters.
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.
Maduro has presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left the country facing shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.
Some 2.3 million people have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations. Inflation is forecast to hit 10 million percent this year.
Lighting a fire: A masked demonstrator in Caracas holds bottles as a fire burns in the street during mass protests yesterday, which saw an opposition leader declare himself President and seven people killed in violence across the country
Eruption of violence: A demonstrator throws back a gas canister in Caracas while clashing with security forces during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government
Guaido’s bold move capped three days of high tension that began Monday when a group of soldiers took over a command post in the capital Caracas and rose up against Maduro.
That uprising was quickly quashed and officials said 27 people were arrested but it set off a wave of smaller protests that were met by security forces using tear gas and rubber bullets.
Wednesday then saw the first mass street protests in Venezuela since a crackdown on anti-government protests between April and July 2017 claimed the lives of 125 people.
Leading figures around the world have appealed for calm to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed – as a Caracas-based NGO, the Social Conflict Observatory, said 26 people had been killed since this week’s protests began four days ago.
Speaking at the World Youth Day in Panama, Pope Francis’s spokesman said he was ‘praying for the victims and for all the people of Venezuela.’