Maduro Speaks to Troops, Trying to Discredit Guaidó’s Call for Mutiny
Venezuela’s president sought to strengthen his image as the undisputed commander of the armed forces on Thursday, mustering troops in a televised show of authority days after the opposition tried to incite a military mutiny that fizzled within hours.
The president, Nicolás Maduro, was dressed in green fatigues and a cap as he waved and spoke to soldiers at a military base in Caracas, the capital. The event seemed intended to further contradict assertions by Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader, that the armed forces were switching their allegiance to him as the economy lurches toward collapse.
“Soldiers of the fatherland, it’s time to fight!” Mr. Maduro said to hundreds of soldiers at the Fuerte Tiuna base.
Mr. Guaidó, who leads the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president more than three months ago, asserting that Mr. Maduro was a corrupt, illegitimate and incompetent autocrat who had stifled dissent and remained in power through an election widely believed to be fraudulent.
Mr. Guaidó has the support of more than 50 countries, but has been unable to turn military commanders to his side — and their support is crucial to turning the tide against Mr. Maduro.
On Tuesday he sought to re-energize his flagging effort to push Mr. Maduro out, orchestrating an appearance with Leopoldo López, a respected leader of the opposition who had apparently been allowed to walk free by officers who kept him in house arrest, and by some mutinous National Guard members.
The event surprised the country and raised speculation of a broader military uprising afoot against Mr. Maduro.
But hours later it was over, as top military commanders reasserted their fealty to him. Mr. Maduro and his aides described the event as an American-backed coup attempt and a prelude to a possible invasion instigated by Trump administration officials.
“How many would die if there is a civil war here because of their insanity?” Mr. Maduro said in his remarks to the troops Thursday. “How many years would we resist?”
At least 20 National Guard members who participated in the coup attempt sought asylum in the Brazilian Embassy in Caracas, and Mr. López sought protection with Spain’s ambassador to Venezuela.
On Thursday, Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. López. He had already spent more than three years in jail after having organized antigovernment protests in 2014.
But there has been no overt effort to arrest Mr. Guaidó, a reflection of the schisms in Venezuelan society over the political struggle convulsing the country.
Mr. Guaidó not only has the backing of the Trump administration but also of Latin American neighbors, including Brazil and Colombia, and most European countries. Mr. Maduro is backed by longtime allies such as Cuba and Russia.
Once Latin America’s most prosperous country, Venezuela is mired in hyperinflation, hunger, severe shortages and dysfunction. More than three million of its population of 30 million have fled. Mr. Maduro has blamed onerous American sanctions for the crisis.
The Trump administration, which clearly had advance notice of Mr. Guaidó’s effort on Tuesday, declared that several top aides of Mr. Maduro had been plotting against him and that there was a plan to take power.
One of those aides, according to top American officials, was the defense minister, Vladimir Padrino. But Mr. Padrino was seen side by side with Mr. Maduro in his televised appearance on Thursday, asking the troops to stay loyal and united.
“I’m outraged that they pretend to buy me with tricky offers,” Mr. Padrino said. “They pretend to buy us.”
Mr. Guaidó followed the failed uprising with a national rally Wednesday. Tens of thousands participated but the crowds fell short of Mr. Guaidó’s goal of holding “the biggest march in history.”
The rally in Caracas quickly turned into a familiar pattern of violence between the armed forces and groups of antigovernment youths, raising doubts among many Venezuelans about the opposition’s prospects for unseating Mr. Maduro.
By Thursday, there was a palpable sense of frustration with the opposition’s strategy on the streets of Caracas, people in the capital said.
Mr. Guaidó is trying to maintain the momentum by calling for strikes in public entities and private companies this month that would culminate in a general strike.
Some of his supporters have expressed skepticism about the plan, given the country’s economic crisis. State entities and schools are already open only half a day and sometimes shut down completely for weeks at a time because of power shortages.
Strikes also are unlikely to affect the oil fields and gold mines that generate the bulk of Mr. Maduro’s revenue. A monthslong but unsuccessful oil strike in 2002 against Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, weakened the economy but strengthened the government’s support.
“Guaidó still represents the majority, but we don’t know how much longer his honeymoon period will last, and the Teflon of public opinion begins to fall off for not resolving the problem of Maduro,” said Luis Vicente Leon, the director of the Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis. “If you resolve the problem, you’re a hero. If you don’t, you become another culprit.”
He said strikes were unlikely to topple Mr. Maduro, and could risk making workers more dependent on government handouts and angering Venezuela’s business community, which has been an important ally of Mr. Guaidó.
“You’re calling for a general strike at the worst economic moment in the nation’s history,” he said.
Others say they are worried Mr. Maduro would use strikes as a justification to seize what remains of Venezuela’s private sector.
“This will only generate anxiety and allow the government to expropriate shops,” said Emmanuel de Jesus, a shopkeeper in the town of Carrizal, on the outskirts of Caracas. “I don’t feel I have safety guarantees if I join the strike.”
Still, many opponents of Mr. Maduro continue to pin their hopes on Mr. Guaidó. Although he is a relative rookie of national politics, he has captivated much of the nation with his charisma, youthful energy and working-class roots.
“The opposition didn’t triumph, but it made a good step forward,” Lourdes Benitez, a 59-year-old university professor, said in describing the events of recent days. “The opposition hasn’t failed yet, they still have strength.”
Despite Mr. Maduro’s show of authority, supporters of Mr. Guaidó say he has punctured his rival’s aura of invincibility, giving them some hope that more rebellions will follow as the economy weakens further.
The opposition took some consolation on Tuesday from the apparent defection of Gen. Christopher Figuera, the head of the feared secret police, which had been seen as the most loyal branch of Mr. Maduro’s security apparatus.
“There is a lot of frustration but the hope continues,” said Irma Lopez, a retiree from the town of Los Teques, near Caracas. “The discontent in the armed forces will not go away. A lot of the middle ranks just don’t know who to obey.”