Violent clashes broke out between protesters and the military in Caracas Tuesday after Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó launched what he said was the final phase in his plan to depose embattled President Nicolás Maduro.
Guaidó’s attempted coup could do just that — or it could mark the latest, and perhaps last, failed attempt by an opposition movement that enjoys significant international backing but has struggled to gather the widespread support in the military it needs to wrest control of the country.
“Today, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men devoted to the constitution have heeded our call. We’ve also heeded the call, and we have found ourselves in the streets of Venezuela once and for all,” Guaidó said early Tuesday from outside a military air base in eastern Caracas.
Hundreds of pro-opposition protesters and some armed forces responded, filling the streets in the opposition’s wealthy stronghold of eastern Caracas. Armed forces that defected to Guaidó’s side clashed with the national guard, and gunfire was reportedly exchanged.
The violent clashes soon spread, with pro-opposition protesters throwing stones, Molotov cocktails, and tear-gas canisters at soldiers loyal to Maduro. They were greeted by extreme force from the military: an armored truck was seen on video plowing into protesters as they threw objects at the vehicle. At least 50 people have been injured in the clashes, CNN reported, citing a hospital official in Caracas.
Guaidó and his mentor, the longtime opposition figure Leopoldo López, who's been under house arrest since 2015, meanwhile, tried and failed to breach the city center, a well-known Maduro stronghold, Bloomberg reported. In a grim sign for the opposition, López then requested asylum at the Chilean embassy in Caracas. In a tweet, Chile’s foreign minister Roberto Ampuero confirmed Lopez's arrival at the embassy.
Opposition figures would not say where their next destination was, but Guaidó's spokesperson told CNN "the objective is to advance."
“We are very happy. This is a definite process,” another opposition spokesperson told The Guardian, as demonstrations continued.
But as the day progressed, it remained hard to gauge how much enthusiasm the opposition’s movement garnered outside its strongholds, and many of the military forces inside the capital city appeared to still be acting with Maduro’s interests in mind.
“Nerves of steel!” Maduro tweeted of his military support, as Guaidó’s “Operation Liberty” was underway.
Venezuelan military commander Vladimir Padrino López appeared on national television Tuesday afternoon, claiming that parts of opposition had already been defeated and that the rest of the country remained calm. He added that the military’s top leaders remained loyal to Maduro’s government.
Maduro has presided over the economic collapse of Venezuela, where power outages are a weekly occurrence and food and medicine shortages have been common for years. The crisis has resulted in a mass exodus, with more than 3 million people leaving the country in the last 3 years alone, according to the U.N.
The beleaguered leader kept largely out of public view Tuesday, but his government described Gauido’s call for action as a small uprising and accused the U.S. of trying to intervene by helping the opposition stage a coup. Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s ambassador to the United Nations, accused the U.S. and other international backers of Gauido of trying to “spark a civil war.”
The U.S., which openly backs Gauido’s bid for power, rejected those accusations, calling the 35-year-old opposition leader the “legitimate interim president” of the country.
“This is clearly not a coup,” National security adviser John Bolton said Tuesday. “We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela and just as it's not a coup when the President of the United States gives an order to the Department of Defense, it is not a coup for Juan Guaidó to try and take command of the Venezuelan military.”
Bolton proceeded to threaten Venezuelan leaders, including military commander Padrino López, in a tweet: “Stay with Maduro, and go down with the ship.”
President Trump also chimed in on Twitter, and said he was “monitoring the situation in Venezuela very closely.”
Guaidó rose to international prominence in January after he declared himself interim president and called Maduro’s claim to power a sham. He soon received international backing from most Western countries, including the U.S. and Canada.
But since then he’s launched numerous high-stakes stunts to garner the support he needs to oust Maduro, including calling for members of the armed forces to defect in February. Not many did.
When VICE News spoke to Guaidó earlier this month, he seemed unfazed by his recent string of failures, which included an aid stand-off on the border of Colombia that turned violent, but appeared to lack concrete steps to realize his ultimate goal.
“What’s the path forward? To insist,” Guaidó told VICE News. “Perhaps it sounds tired, but when you’re confronting a dictatorship with non-violence, with the constitution, with demonstrations, our great defense, our great chance to advance, is to keep moving forward.”
Cover: An opponent to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro carrying a Venezuelan flag covers his face amid tear gas fired by soldiers loyal to Maduro during an attempted military uprising to oust Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, April 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Boris Vergara)