As Maduro holds on, Venezuela opposition eyes negotiated transition

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez next to his wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition is trying to convince ruling Socialist Party officials to join a transition government, shifting focus as it seeks to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of growing international pressure and U.S. sanctions.

Last month, Venezuelan opposition leader and Congress chief Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s reelection in May 2018 illegitimate. He swiftly received recognition from the United States and Latin American powers.

In an effort to secure the backing of Venezuela’s military, Guaido proposed an amnesty for officers who turn on Maduro’s government.

But defections have been minimal and top brass has declared allegiance to Maduro, dimming hopes of a quick end to an economic disaster that has prompted millions of desperate Venezuelans to flee abroad, fueling a regional humanitarian crisis.

Amid fears the changes have stalled, opposition leaders have begun to talk in the past week about bringing ruling Socialist Party stalwarts into a potential transition government.

“This transition requires a large national agreement between the country’s political forces,” Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-run National Assembly, said in an interview.

Zambrano said any transition must include “Chavismo,” the left-wing movement founded by Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, who hand-picked Maduro as his successor.

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“You cannot disappear Chavismo and you cannot go from persecuted to persecutor. This is not political revenge,” he said.

It was not immediately clear how actively the opposition is building bridges. Opposition leaders say they maintain contact with government officials and military officers but keep such talks confidential to avoid affecting those involved.

Maduro says he is the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt and has refused to resign.

Many rank-and-file opposition supporters hope to see Maduro and his allies exiled or behind bars, and would be frustrated by attempts to bring them into the transition.

Guaido’s decision to assume the interim presidency revitalized Venezuela’s fragmented and disillusioned opposition and led to a flurry of street protests.

Hopes of quick change were fueled by diplomatic support from numerous countries and tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry, which has bankrolled Maduro’s government.

Some in the opposition quietly predicted a military pronouncement in favor of Guaido as early as Jan. 23, the day he proclaimed himself president at a rally in Caracas. Top military officials were silent for hours after Guaido’s pronouncement, leading to speculation that Maduro was frantically negotiating with officers not to switch sides.

Yet only a handful of active officers backed Guaido. Expectations of a quick military proclamation have given way to concerns over a slow and complicated path forward, both in Caracas and Washington.

“I don’t think (Washington) understood the complexities of the target, of Venezuela: all the overlapping security that Maduro has available; the things at his disposal,” said one former U.S. administration official in touch with current officials.

WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?

The idea of a unity in Venezuela was in fact included in a little-noticed provision of a Transition Law passed by the National Assembly last month.

Venezuela’s four main opposition parties all back the idea, but in the past week have increasingly discussed the issue.

“People must understand that Chavismo is not just Maduro,” legislator Stalin Gonzalez said in an interview with Reuters last week, in comments that sparked a backlash on social media.

Some opposition supporters say they would be open to middle-ranking or dissident socialists being included in an interim government, but not the top brass.

“They must pay for what they have done,” said Maria Elena Fonseca, who at age 78 struggles to make ends meet despite working as a psychologist. Like countless Venezuelans, Fonseca has seen her income eroded by hyperinflation that now tops 2 million percent annually.

Fonseca receives remittance from her daughter abroad, who is among the estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the once-prosperous nation since 2015.

“It’s not about revenge: it’s about justice,” she said.

STALLING MOMENTUM?

Back channels between the two sides are considerably better developed than might be expected from 20 years of acrimonious politics and the constant slew of vitriolic social media commentary.

Gonzalez and other young legislators developed relationships with Socialist Party politicians in 2016. The two sides coexisted in the legislature until Maduro backed the creation in 2017 of an all-powerful, government-controlled Constitution Assembly with the aim of sidelining Congress.

Guaido’s team is wielding a stick as well as a carrot. It has held massive protests nationwide over the past month and will face off with authorities when it attempts to bring humanitarian aid into the country on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Washington’s crippling sanctions on the oil sector are expected to take effect in the coming weeks, cutting off funding to Maduro.

The risk, however, is that a standoff will drag on for months, disillusioning opposition supporters while allowing Maduro to blame an escalating economic crisis on the U.S. sanctions.

“The longer times passes and the opposition doesn’t pose a legitimate threat to Maduro, the more confident he will get,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks. He noted that Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran all resisted international opprobrium and sanctions for decades.

“Chavistas are willing to drive this country into a level of despondency and reduce the economy to a level Venezuela hasn’t seen in decades as long as they can remain in power,” he said.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington’; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)

Venezuela captures rogue officers after uprising at military outpost

Demonstrators stand close to the remains of a burning car used as barricade during a protest near to a National Guard outpost in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Mayela Armas and Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela has captured a group of military officers who stole weapons and kidnapped four officials on Monday, the government said, hours after a social media video showed a sergeant demanding the removal of President Nicolas Maduro.

An unspecified number of officers early on Monday attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighborhood of Cotiza, a kilometer (0.6 mile) from the presidential Miraflores palace, where they met “firm resistance,” the government said in a statement. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3 a.m. (0700 GMT) in the area.

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

An armored vehicle is seen outside an outpost of the Venezuelan National Guards during a protest in Caracas, Venezuela January 21, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Protesters later burned trash and a car outside the outpost, where the officers were arrested, in a sign of growing tensions following Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that governments around the world have called illegitimate.

Though the incident signals discontent within the armed forces, it appeared to involve only low-ranking officers with little capacity to force change in the hyperinflationary economy as many people suffer from shortages of food and medicine.

“The armed forces categorically reject this type of action, which is most certainly motivated by the dark interests of the extreme right,” the government said in a statement read out on state television.

Maduro was inaugurated on Jan. 10 under an avalanche of criticism that his leadership was illegitimate following a 2018 election widely viewed as fraudulent, with countries around the world disavowing his government.

Opposition leaders and exiled dissidents have called on the armed forces to turn against Maduro, which the president has denounced as efforts to encourage a coup against him.

The opposition-controlled congress’s head, Juan Guaido, said the uprising was a sign of the armed forces’ depressed state of mind. Congress was committed to offering guarantees to officers who helped with “the constitution’s reconstitution,” he said, though he did not want the military to fall into internal conflict.

“We want it to stand as one man on the side of the people, the constitution, and against the usurpation,” he said on Twitter.

In the videos that circulated on Twitter, a group of armed soldiers stood in darkness apparently at the Cotiza outpost while their leader addressed the camera and called for Venezuelans to support their revolt.

“You all asked that we take to the streets to defend the constitution. Here we are. Here we have the troops. It’s today when the people come out to support us,” said the man in the video, who identified himself as Luis Bandres.

The government said the men took two vehicles from a police station in the Macarao district in the west of Caracas before driving to a barracks in the eastern Petare slum, where they stole an arms cache and kidnapped four officials.

After they attacked the Cotiza outpost in the early hours of the morning, security forces surrounded them. In response, several dozen residents barricaded streets and set fire to rubbish as they chanted “Don’t hand yourself in,” according to Reuters witnesses. Troops fired tear gas to disperse them.

“These soldiers are right to rise up. We need a political change, because we don’t have any water or electricity,” said Angel Rivas, a 49-year-old laborer at the protest.

The United States and many Latin American nations say Maduro has become a dictator whose failed state-led policies have plunged Venezuela into its worst ever economic crisis, with inflation approaching 2 million percent.

Maduro says a U.S.-directed “economic war” is trying to force him from power.

(Additional reporting by Vivian Sequera and Corina Pons; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Angus Berwick; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

President Maduro to start new term as Venezuela isolation grows

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures while he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela January 9, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro begins a second term in office on Thursday, shrugging off international criticism that his reelection last year was illegitimate but facing further isolation as an economic crisis fuels a humanitarian emergency.

Leaders from the ruling Socialist Party have disavowed criticism of Maduro’s inauguration, which will keep him at the helm of the OPEC member until 2025, and called for rallies in his support.

Opposition leaders, however, have portrayed the inauguration as the moment at which Maduro will be internationally branded a dictator following a widely boycotted 2018 election that many foreign governments described as a farce.

But continued support from the military, a fractured opposition and a relentless crackdown on opposition critics means that Maduro appears to face few serious challenges at home, despite the international outcry.

“They’ve tried to turn a constitutional swearing-in ceremony into a world war,” Maduro said during a news conference on Wednesday. “But whether there’s rain, thunder or lightning, we’re going to triumph.”

He will be sworn in by the Supreme Court rather than the opposition-run congress, which has been stripped of its powers since the Socialist Party lost control of it in 2016 – a move that underpins opposition criticism that Maduro has consolidated a dictatorship.

Maduro will then head to a ceremony at Venezuela’s military academy, signaling the importance of the armed forces in his governing coalition.

His triumphalist discourse echoes that of his predecessor, late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who used abundant oil revenues to flood Venezuela with consumer goods while providing heavily subsidized food and medicine.

That contrasts sharply with the Venezuela of today.

Inflation is fast approaching 2 million percent. Some three million people have emigrated since 2015 – many on foot – to escape malnutrition and disease, according to the United Nations.

Bank notes that once paid for months’ worth of groceries are now tossed in trash cans or even woven into multi-colored women’s handbags sold by street merchants.

Maduro last year won reelection despite the economic chaos in large part because the opposition boycotted the vote. He blames an “economic war” led by the United States and the domestic opposition to try to undermine socialism as the cause for the country’s woes.

“I agree with the measures that Venezuela is taking,” said Francisco Rivas, 53, a state employee wearing a red shirt who joined a crowd outside the Miraflores presidential palace in support of Maduro. “[Maduro] is looking out for the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people, but many have betrayed him.”

LOSING PATIENCE

The United States and many Latin American and European countries condemned the vote, leaving Maduro backed by just a handful of stalwart allies from leftist governments.

There are few signs that countries will shutter embassies or sever ties with Venezuela, according to diplomatic sources, but most will not send diplomats to the inauguration.

Opposition activists have called for protests on Thursday. Authorities have responded by filling streets with police checkpoints and rifle-toting troops.

“They’re trying to scare us so that we don’t protest,” said Henry Ramirez, 39, a computer engineer in the western city of San Cristobal, attempting to cut into a line for gasoline, the type of queue that has become increasingly frequent during the crisis. “Tomorrow the dictatorship continues.”

While politically motivated demonstrations have faded, protests take place nearly every day to demand salary improvements, access to food and medicine, or improvements to erratic power and water services. Even supporters of Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” were losing patience with the economy.

“I ask that the president focus on increasing wages,” said Daveli Valecillos, a 29-year-old homemaker who traveled to Caracas from the eastern state of Monagas to witness the inauguration. “Every time prices go up it’s a blow to this country, and we don’t know how much longer we can last.”

But many had lost hope that Maduro’s inauguration could change anything.

“I’m just trying to get a few more documents together so I can leave the country,” said Angela Perez, 26, who works the cash register at a fast-food restaurant in the city of Valencia. “There’s no future here. It’s sad but true.”

(Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas, Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mariela Navas in Maracaibo; editing by Angus MacSwan and Susan Thomas)