Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro, and violence broke out at anti-government protests as the country hit a new crisis point after years of political and economic chaos.
Several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally outside the La Carlota air base in Caracas, but the incident fizzled out and did not appear to be part of an immediate attempt by the opposition to take power through military force.
Guaido, in Twitter posts, wrote that he had begun the “final phase” of his campaign to topple Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the armed forces to back him ahead of May Day mass street protests planned for Wednesday.
“The moment is now!” he wrote. “The future is ours: the people and Armed Forces united to put an end” to Maduro’s time in office.
Tens of thousands of people were marching in Caracas in support of Guaido on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armoured car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino called the latest instability a “coup movement” but several hours after Guaido’s announcement there was no sign of any other anti-Maduro military activity. Guaido later left a rally he was holding with military supporters at the air base.
Doctor Maggi Santi of the Salud Chacao health centre in eastern Caracas said there were 36 people injured in Tuesday’s incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.
Repeated opposition attempts to force Maduro, a socialist, from power through huge protests and calls on the military to act have so far failed.
Maduro, a former bus driver who took office after the death of political mentor President Hugo Chavez in 2013, said on Tuesday he had spoken with military leaders and that they had shown him “their total loyalty.”
“Nerves of steel!” Maduro wrote on Twitter. “I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace. We will win!”
The move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to persuade the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks the support he says he has. It might also encourage the authorities, who have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.
The United States is among some 50 countries that recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s president, and has imposed sanctions to try to dislodge Maduro, who they say won re-election last year through fraud.
“Whatever happens now, we won’t let ourselves be stopped. Our process is moving on step by step, in accordance with our constitution. We continue to stand for nonviolence,” Guaido told German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle in an interview released on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities say they are putting down a small coup attempt after opposition leader Juan Guaidó announced he was in the “final phase” of ending President Nicolás Maduro’s rule.