Venezuela on Tuesday was rocked by violent clashes between opposition protesters and security forces still loyal to Nicolas Maduro, the country’s socialist president, in a dramatic escalation of the political crisis that has left the country teetering on the edge of violence for months.
Opposition leaders Juan Guaido and Leopoldo Lopez announced a new effort to oust Maduro on Tuesday, saying they had some military backing to push him out of power after months of protest against his increasingly hard line rule that Maduro has dismissed as a U.S.-backed coup.
The Trump administration was quick to boost Guaido and the opposition, issuing statements of support.
Guaido, the president of the country’s National Assembly who was sworn in as interim president in January, was joined by Lopez, a leading opposition figure who had been under house arrest, but was freed Tuesday by deserted Venezuelan military officers. Near a major military base in the capital Caracas, he announced the “final phase” of their effort to remove Maduro from power.
He said the uprising now had the support of at least some military officials, but it’s unclear how many. Hours later, government forces fired tear gas and clashed with some of his supporters in the streets of Caracas. In addition to reports of gunfire, video showed Maduro’s armored vehicles rolling through the streets after protesters, in some cases trampling some as they attacked them.
Maduro’s government says that it “de-activated” a “small” group of military officials attempting a coup, with Maduro tweeting that he had spoken to several military commanders who expressed their “total loyalty.”
Guaido’s representative to Washington fought back, telling reporters, “This is not a military coup. This is a constitutional process led by the Venezuelan people under the leadership of a civilian, the interim president of Venezuela Juan Guaido.”
U.S. leaders, from Vice President Mike Pence to Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., again voiced support for the opposition and its stated push for democracy. The U.S. and more than 50 other countries have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and called for Maduro to exit, exerting increasing economic pressure on his government to force him to do that.
“To [Guaido], the National Assembly and all the freedom-loving people of Venezuela who are taking to the streets today … We are with you!” tweeted Vice President Mike Pence. “America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored.”
The U.S. “fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy,” added Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, although he stopped short of outright endorsing the actions taken Tuesday.
The White House said President Donald Trump had been briefed and was monitoring the situation. For now, it seems, the U.S. is waiting to see what happens before fully embracing the latest effort.
Maduro has faced protests for months over his economic mismanagement, consolidation of power, and crackdown on political opposition. The opposition-controlled National Assembly voted to declare Guaido interim president in January, winning the backing of the U.S., several neighbors like Colombia and Brazil, and many European countries. But Maduro, backed by allies like Russia and Cuba, has maintained his control on power, in large part by sustaining the support of the military chiefs.
Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino again reiterated support for Maduro Tuesday, saying Guaido is responsible for any violence or deaths.
U.S. officials have said they’ve been in talks with some high-ranking military officials to peel away their support, but it was not apparent Tuesday if there had been any major new defections.
It’s also unclear if the U.S. had advanced warning of Guaido and Lopez’s plan. The State Department did not respond to request for comment.
But Durbin said that National Security Adviser John Bolton called him early Tuesday morning to brief him on what was happening, and as soon as the events began to unfold, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., weighed in on Twitter: “Liberty & freedom is never easy. But it is always worth it. #Venezuela.” Rubio has been a vocal supporter of Guaido and a key adviser to the Trump administration on Latin America policy.