Buoyed by the defection of a top general, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido predicted Saturday the month of February would be “decisive” in determining the future of the nation as he and socialist leader Nicolas Maduro held competing mass rallies in the capital.
National Assembly head Guaido, 35, had called Saturday’s protest to ramp up the pressure on Maduro to step down, ten days after stunning the world by declaring himself “interim president” of the oil-rich but crisis-wracked country.
He received a boost before it began when an air force general became the highest ranking officer to abandon Maduro and recognize Guaido as the country’s true leader.
US National Security Advisor John Bolton responded to that in a tweet calling on “all military members to follow General (Francisco) Yanez’s lead.”
The United States recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on January 23 while four major European nations — Britain, France, Germany and Spain — have said they will do likewise unless Maduro calls presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.
– ‘Let’s have elections’ –
Speaking at a pro-regime demonstration marking 20 years since his predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power, Maduro ignored those demands and instead reiterated his call to bring forward legislative elections slated for the end of 2020 to this year.
“They (the opposition) want to bring forward elections, let’s have elections,” he said.
Maduro, making his first public appearance since a military parade in August when he claimed to have been targeted in an attempted assassination, accused Guaido of being a US “puppet” in a coup d’etat attempt.
The National Assembly is the only one of Venezuela’s five government branches controlled by the opposition.
Guaido had earlier urged the armed forces to allow humanitarian aid from abroad into the country.
“You, soldier… have the decision in your hands” to allow it in or not, said Guaido. The United States said Saturday it will transport aid to the country in response to a request by Guaido.
Under Maduro’s stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has lurched into an economic crisis that has left the country suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
Maduro refuses to let aid into Venezuela, claiming it would precede a US-led military intervention.