Maduro’s fate in the balance as protesters flood streets of Caracas

Air Force general backs president’s rival amid growing unrest in Venezuela

At the turn of the year, Inyerveht Bellorín was poised to abandon his law degree and his homeland, swapping his shattered country for a new life in Panama. Then came the sudden political shake-up that has convinced many Venezuelans the curtains are coming down on Nicolás Maduro’s catastrophic six-year reign. Everything changed.

“You can smell the change,” said the 22-year-old student, repeating it as if he almost couldn’t believe it was true. “You can smell the change!”

In the wake of Venezuela’s latest upheaval, Bellorín, from Barlovento, an hour east of the capital, has scrapped plans to join the exodus that has robbed his oil-rich country of a tenth of its citizens.

Instead, yesterday morning he was one of tens of thousands of dissenters who streamed onto the streets to demand Maduro’s exit. “It’s essential we stay … because what is coming is good and it guarantees our future,” he said, grinning cheek to cheek.

Octavio González, a fellow student leader at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas, said he was also convinced the sun was setting on Maduro’s “macabre and murderous dictatorship”.

“It’s a breaking point … I think the end is near,” said González, 24. “If it’s a question of days or months, who knows? But you can be sure it won’t make it through the year. It can’t.”

Richard Utrera, 46, a father-of-two was at the protest carrying a placard reading: “When fear dies, freedom is born.” He said: “We feel joy – for the first time there is hope because we are getting help from overseas.”

His wife, Estilicia de García, said: “It’s been so long since we felt this way … We must carry on fighting – most of all for our kids.”

As Venezuela enters the third week of the latest and most serious bid to dislodge Maduro, there is a palpable elation among government opponents that Hugo Chávez’s widely loathed heir might finally be on his way out. Their optimism was fuelled yesterday by a video message from a serving general, Francisco Yanez of the air force’s high command, calling on the armed forces to rebel against Maduro and recognise his challenger, Juan Guaidó.

Nicolás Maduro attends a military parade in Caracas on Friday.
Nicolás Maduro attends a military parade in Caracas on Friday. Photograph: Reuters

Yanez – the first general to support Guaidó since he declared himself interim president in late January – claimed that “Ninety percent of the armed forces are not with the dictator – they are with the people,” adding: “The transition to democracy is imminent.”

Maduro however has shown little sign of being prepared to stand down, and many observers are not expecting any imminent transition.

Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert from the Washington Office on Latin America, said that – aside from the move by Yanez – the fact the military had remained loyal suggested Maduro was not necessarily likely to be ousted soon.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some kind of continuation of the status quo. This is a regime that has had 20 years to buy the loyalty of the cornerstone of Venezuelan politics, which is the armed forces. Unless that changes, I just don’t see a transition,” he said. Eva Golinger, a US writer and former Chávez ally who first met Maduro about 15 years ago, said it was impossible to predict what might come next: “Every day is a new day.”

But she also doubted that Maduro – who continues to enjoy the backing of Russia and China, as well as the military – was about to fall. “There is certainly concern [within Maduro’s administration]. But I’m not seeing a weakening in the government to the point at which the dozen or so in Maduro’s circle are going to give it up. There is no sign of that. They are not planning on relinquishing power,” Golinger said.

Guaidó begs to differ. At the unveiling of an opposition blueprint for Venezuela’s rescue on Thursday, he was inundated by members of the media and hundreds of admirers who now lionise him as a potential saviour. “We are in the streets and we will remain in the streets until the usurpation ends,” Guaidó declared, urging people to join what he called “the biggest march in the history of Venezuela and our continent”, yesterday.

José Toro Hardy, a Venezuelan economist who helped devise the economic recovery plan, said “very specific historical circumstances” meant the stars had aligned for those seeking change. In particular, unambiguous support from Donald Trump means Maduro’s position is under threat.

“Venezuela has been driving the wrong way down the highway of life and we must take the right direction again,” Hardy said.

Golinger said she was troubled by Trump’s apparent resolve to remove Maduro and feared failure to achieve that through political pressure could lead to military action. “It would be hard to see this administration – that is so much into winning – take this as a loss and not get Maduro out. That would be a huge defeat for Trump. I can’t even imagine. I think he would send in the troops.”

That, Ramsey warned, would not only be a logistical nightmare for the US but “ultimately a bloodbath”.

Protesters like Bellorín and González said they were aware of the potential dangers and hoped Maduro agreed to step down. “Nobody in this country is prepared for a war,” González said.

On the eve of yesterday’s protests, Maduro visited a special-forces training ground with defence minister, Vladimir Padrino, to oversee a parade of anti-riot troops. “We are facing a historic battle,” Maduro said. “The greatest political, diplomatic and economic aggression Venezuela has faced in 200 years.

“I will stand firm and I can tell you that we will win.” Maduro then shouted what has become the refrain of his epic struggle to retain power: “Always loyal!”

“Never traitors!” the troops bellowed back. That message was undermined just hours later by Yanez’s announcement on social media that he was abandoning Maduro.

González, the student leader, said he was certain more would follow: “No one follows a corpse into the grave.”

Juan Guaidó is described as an American puppet waging an illegal coup against their Bolivarian revolution, by the president’s allies.

“A whippersnapper,” top chavista Diosdado Cabello scoffed last week.

Guaidó’s Twitter profile describes him as a civil servant and engineer – as well as interim president of the republic.

But for millions of despairing people, the 35-year-old is a source of hope. Just 15 when “El Comandante” Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1998, Guaidó is from La Guaira, a port city just north of the capital, and belongs to Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) a centrist opposition party.

He took his first steps into politics in 2007, during anti-Chávez protests, and was taken under the wing of Leopoldo López, one of the country’s best-known and most combative opposition leaders.

With López under house arrest it has fallen to Guaidó – first elected in 2015 but virtually unknown until he became head of the opposition-run national assembly in early January - to lead the latest attempt to unseat Maduro. On 23 January, he declared himself interim president based on an article of the constitution he says permits him to claim leadership if the presidency is left “vacant”.

“We have woken up from a nightmare to dream of a better country,” he told supporters last week. Many are now banking on him to build just that.


Tom Phillips and Patricia Torres in Caracas

The GuardianTramp

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