Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say
By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of Venezuelans is on track to reach 5 million people, as pressure grows on neighboring countries to provide them with long-term support, United Nations and European Union officials said on Wednesday.

Some 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to official figures, but more are using illegal crossing points because they lack identity papers, said Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the U.N. refugee and migration agencies.

The crisis has worsened since the United States imposed sanctions, including on the pivotal oil industry, in an effort to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Dozens of nations recognize Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged a 2018 election.

Roughly 5,000 people leave Venezuela daily, although the number fluctuates as more states require visas, Stein said.

“The experience of other crises in the world shows us that those who would want to go back to Venezuela if the crisis in political terms were to be solved today, it will take a good two years or maybe even more,” Stein told a news conference.

A U.N. regional humanitarian response plan of $739 million for this year is expected to nearly double for 2020, he added.

The initially welcoming attitude to Venezuelans around South America has soured amid accusations they bring crime, crowd the job market, and strain social services.

The United Nations and European Union are hosting a meeting on Oct. 28-29 in Brussels to raise awareness of needs. Donors and officials from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are due to attend, but no Venezuelan representatives.

“This is the most severe and fastest-growing refugee migrant crisis in Latin American history, at least recent history,” said Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “There are estimates also that it could further increase if the situation does not change, quickly reaching 5 million.”

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants fleeing the long-running crisis, which has caused widespread shortages of food and medicine. Some 1.4 million Venezuelans live in Colombia.

The flow is overwhelming the financial and administrative capacities of host countries to provide education and health services, Stein said.

“Nine receiving countries have agreed to accept expired (Venezuelan) passports as valid documents. And so with an expired passport you can get a temporary permit sometimes for two years,” he stated.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Venezuela is terrorist sanctuary: Colombian president

FILE PHOTO: Colombia's President Ivan Duque gives a speech during the swearing-in ceremony of a new Congress in Bogota, Colombia, July 20, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has turned his country into a terrorist sanctuary and committed the grave error of protecting guerrilla groups and drug traffickers, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Monday, as tensions between the neighboring countries escalated once again.

The comments came after Maduro said on Sunday that two missing former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commanders sought by Colombian judicial authorities were “welcome in Venezuela.”

Tensions have worsened since Duque joined the United States and most Latin American countries in recognizing Juan Guaido, president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, as the country’s rightful leader, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

“What we are seeing is that not only has (Maduro) harbored Colombian terrorists for many years, but he ratifies more and more that Venezuela is a sanctuary for terrorists and drug traffickers,” Duque said in Shanghai, China, where he is on an official visit.

Maduro said over the weekend that Seuxis Paucias Hernandez and Luciano Marin, known respectively by their nom de guerres Jesus Santrich and Ivan Marquez, were “leaders of peace.”

Santrich and Marquez both joined the FARC’s political party after the leftist rebel group demobilized under a 2016 peace deal that ended decades of civil war. They were set to serve in congressional seats reserved for the group.

But Marquez went missing last year after his nephew was arrested and taken to the United States to cooperate with drug-trafficking investigators.

Earlier this month Colombia’s Supreme Court ordered Santrich’s arrest after he failed to appear for questioning about U.S. drug-trafficking charges.

“There is not one doubt that Santrich is protected by that dictatorial regime,” Duque said of Venezuela. “This is one more motivation to keep strengthening the diplomatic blockade.”

Duque has repeatedly said Santrich might have fled to Venezuela. Maduro said on Sunday he had learned of Santrich’s possible presence in Venezuela from Duque’s statement.

Colombian authorities believe dissident FARC rebels, who did not demobilize under the peace accord, and fighters for the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group hide in Venezuela and receive protection from Maduro. Maduro’s government has denied protecting rebels.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup, broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota in February after Guaido’s failed attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela via the Colombian border.

(Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Dan Grebler)

On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

From Colombia, Venezuelan defectors arm themselves to ‘liberate’ their homeland

FILE PHOTO: People protest at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

By Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta

CUCUTA, Colombia (Reuters) – Wearing camouflage shirts and combat boots, a Venezuelan militia group stands in formation in the Colombian city of Cucuta as their commander, a former Venezuelan army sergeant, outlines plans to seize towns across the border before heading to Caracas to help oust President Nicolas Maduro.

Eight men, who said they were defectors from Venezuelan police, army and intelligence services, had gathered near the two nations’ tense frontier, from where they said they will lead an attack aimed at overthrowing Maduro and handing the reins of power to opposition leader Juan Guaido.

Dubbing their planned offensive “Operation Venezuela,” the ex-army sergeant, Eddier Rodriguez, said there were around 150 men ready to take part with his group. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the status of the eight men or the size of the militia.

“Our goal is to liberate the country,” said Rodriguez, 37, who said he is currently working as a security guard in Bogota. “We’re troops willing to give our lives if necessary, all 150 of us.”

The Venezuelan defense ministry and the information ministry – which handles media inquiries for the government – did not respond to a request for comment about the formation of militias in Colombia.

Victor Bautista, border director for Colombia’s foreign ministry, said any groups who actually took up arms would be considered a paramilitary organization and would be detained by authorities if they were found.

“That would be totally rejected by our government and fully taken up by the appropriate authorities to apply corresponding legal measures,” said Bautista.

A Colombian intelligence official, who asked not to be identified, said the intelligence service had detected an unspecified number of Venezuelan militia groups in the country but could not act against them because they had not yet committed any crimes. Separately, a high-level Colombian government official who asked not to be named said arrestable offences could include illegal possession of weapons and conspiracy to commit a crime.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan military deserters of the National Guard are seen at the Simon Bolivar International border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, on the outskirts of Cucuta, Colombia April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Juan Pablo Bayona/File Photo

An estimated 1.2 million Venezuelans have crossed into Colombia in recent years, fleeing a painful recession and hyperinflation in their homeland that has left millions of people suffering from hunger and shortages of basic goods. They include increasing numbers of defectors from the armed forces, some of whom are forming militias with the intention of pushing for the overthrow of Maduro.

While such militias are vastly outnumbered in the face of Venezuela’s 150,000-strong military, the men told Reuters they were willing to face any consequence if they can rid their country of Maduro’s government, underscoring the frustration and desperation of many Venezuelan migrants.

Guaido cited the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro rigged last year’s election. He has appealed to Venezuela’s armed forces to turn against Maduro.

The United States and most Western nations have recognized Guaido as the South American country’s rightful leader. Maduro accuses him of being a coup-monger and so far has retained the loyalty of the bulk of the armed forces.

Rodriguez said his group had been meeting different “resistance” groups in Colombia. He did not provide further details of those groups, or of how they planned to cross the border and launch an attack.

He said they had acquired handguns, easily available along the border, and were seeking to raise funds to buy further weapons, explosives, bullet-proof vests, food and water.

‘MINIMAL BLOODSHED’

Colombian President Ivan Duque has recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful ruler and branded Maduro a dictator. Maduro severed diplomatic relations with Colombia after Duque backed opposition efforts to bring U.S. aid into the country in February, although Duque has ruled out supporting any military intervention.

More than 1,400 members of the national guard and other members of the armed forces have left Venezuela for Colombia since Maduro’s troops violently drove back the aid convoys, according to Colombia’s migration office.

As per an agreement with the Venezuelan opposition, Colombia provides dissident military officials with food and housing, and the right to work.

In an interview in Caracas, Guaido said that if any decided to take up arms that would be due to Maduro’s refusal to agree to free and fair presidential elections.

“This reflects the discontent that there is in the armed forces: soldiers looking for alternatives and solutions because Maduro has shut off the electoral option,” Guaido told Reuters.

He did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Bautista’s assertion that groups who took up arms in Colombia would be detained.

Maduro has said last year’s presidential vote was fair and has branded defecting soldiers as “traitors.”

On April 30, Guaido attempted to rally Venezuela’s armed forces to rise up, but only a few dozen soldiers and one top government official defected. The military top brass reaffirmed their loyalty to Maduro.

Over the years, Maduro – and former President Hugo Chavez – won the loyalty of the armed forces in part by promoting hundreds of officers to the rank of general and rewarding them with lucrative positions in state-run entities, like oil company PDVSA.

Rodriguez’s team said they have made contact with garrisons in Venezuela and many were ready to fight once the operation began. He did not provide details about specific garrisons and Reuters could not independently verify the information.

“They’re waiting for us to enter to make their troops available (to fight),” said Pedro Meneses, an industrial engineer and rights worker who said he managed the militia’s logistics. “We want to do this with minimal bloodshed.”

Former Sergeant Major Efren Fernandez, who deserted to Cucuta in February, told Reuters that he was also ready to fight for Guaido.

“Mr President Guaido, rely on our support,” he said. “Here are your soldiers ready for battle, for combat.”

(Reporting by Helen Murphy and Luis Jaime Acosta, Additional reporting by Andres Rojas, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

‘It’s time to rise up,’ Venezuelan general tells military officers in video

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan residents in Colombia protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Medellin, Colombia, May 1, 2019. REUTERS/David Estrada.

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – A Venezuelan general called on the country’s armed forces on Sunday to rise up against President Nicolas Maduro, who has relied on the backing of the military to hold on to power despite an economic collapse.

Ramon Rangel, who identified himself as an air force general, said the Venezuelan government is being controlled by the “communist dictatorship” in Cuba – a key Maduro ally.

“We have to find a way to get rid of the fear, to go out into the streets, to protest, and to seek a military union to change this political system,” Rangel, dressed in a suit with a copy of the constitution in his hand, said in a video posted on YouTube. “It’s time to rise up.”

While Rangel’s pronouncement marks another blow to Maduro after a handful of similar defections by senior officers this year, there is little to indicate that he will tip the scales.

Officers who have disavowed Maduro have fled the country and the military top brass – most notably those who command troops – continues to recognize Maduro.

The information ministry did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Reuters was also unable to obtain comment from Rangel.

Air Force Commander Pedro Juliac posted a picture of Rangel on Twitter on Sunday with the words “traitor to the Venezuelan people and the revolution” printed across the image.

Rangel was an active military officer who fled to Colombia last month, according to a source close to Venezuela’s military who asked not to be identified.

Unlike other officers who have made similar pronouncements, Rangel did not voice support for Juan Guaido – the opposition leader who invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

More than 50 nations, including the United States and most South American nations, call Guaido Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Guaido and a group of soldiers called on the armed forces on April 30 to turn on Maduro, but the military never joined and the uprising collapsed. The government called the event a coup attempt and accused a group of 10 opposition legislators of treason for joining rallies that day.

Venezuela is suffering a hyperinflationary collapse that has fueled a migration exodus of some 3.5 million people in the past three years.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Paul Tait)

Deputy of Venezuela’s Guaido arrested and dragged away by tow truck

FILE PHOTO: Juan Guaido (R), new President of the National Constituent Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan opposition party Popular Will (Partido Voluntad Popular), and lawmaker Edgar Zambrano of Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica), leave the congress after Guaido's swearing-in ceremony, in Caracas, Venezuela January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents detained opposition leader Juan Guaido’s congressional deputy on Wednesday, using a tow truck to drag his vehicle away with him inside, prompting the U.S. government to warn of “consequences” if he was not released.

The SEBIN intelligence agency seized Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaido heads, in the first arrest of a lawmaker since Guaido tried to spark a military uprising last week to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed on Tuesday to strip Zambrano and six other lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution. The opposition does not recognize the assembly’s decisions.

The Supreme Court had earlier accused those lawmakers of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and accused another three opposition legislators of the same crimes on Wednesday.

The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters, while the U.S. government this week threatened to sanction all its members.

The U.S. government’s Venezuelan embassy, now based in Washington, said Zambrano’s “arbitrary detention” was “illegal and inexcusable.”

“Maduro and his accomplices are those directly responsible for Zambrano’s security. If he is not immediately freed, there will be consequences,” the embassy said on Twitter.

An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized by the United States and other Western countries as the rightful head of state, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. Maduro decried the events as an attempted coup.

“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television.

“They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.

‘KIDNAPPED’

Zambrano said on Twitter at about 6.40 pm local time (2240 GMT) SEBIN agents had surrounded his vehicle outside the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in Caracas’ La Florida district.

“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said. It was not yet clear if Zambrano was already at the Helicoide.

Guaido said on Twitter: “The regime has kidnapped the first vice president.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by half over the past five years, forcing more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate.

The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April. Authorities have not tried to arrest him since then, but Maduro has said he will “face justice.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the U.S. government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber in 2017 for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the lawmakers’ parliamentary immunities, and immediately release Edgar Zambrano.”

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

As Venezuela tensions mount, U.S. to deploy hospital ship to region

People hold lit candles and Venezuelan flags while participating in a candlelight vigil held for victims of recent violence in Caracas, Venezuela May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Phil Stewart

(Reuters) – As tensions with Venezuela mount, the United States is planning to announce on Tuesday the deployment of a military hospital ship to the region, U.S. officials say, in the latest sign of the Pentagon’s limited, and targeted, involvement in the crisis.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, did not specify where in the region the ship would travel to. Last year, a hospital ship — the USNS Comfort — cared for Venezuelan refugees and others as it stopped in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Honduras.

The U.S. military’s Southern Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Latin America, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The deployment will fall far short of satisfying some of President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans, who have called for more robust U.S. military support to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who seeks to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

The United States and some 50 countries recognize Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has called for the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier, something critics say is tantamount to threatening U.S. military intervention to topple Maduro.

President Donald Trump has invested considerable political capital in the diplomatic and economic intervention in the Venezuela crisis. But he has not signaled an intent to use military force.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, however, stressed last week that the Pentagon has been planning a full range of military options.

The announcement of the hospital ship’s deployment would come the same day that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was expected to offer new incentives to Venezuela’s military to turn against Maduro, responding to an attempted uprising that fizzled out last week.

In a speech at the State Department scheduled for 3:25 p.m. (1925 GMT), Pence will also warn that the United States will soon move to impose sanctions on 25 additional magistrates on Venezuela’s supreme court, a senior administration official said.

Pence will also offer assistance for refugees who have fled the country, and an economic aid package contingent on a political transition, according to the official.

Guaido, the president of the country’s national assembly, invoked Venezuela’s constitution in January to declare himself interim president of the country, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Maduro – who has said Guaido is a puppet of Washington – has sought to show that the military remains on his side, but opposition leaders and U.S. officials have said that support is tenuous.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Venezuela opposition figure, facing arrest warrant, says he met with generals

Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez talks to the media at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, evading arrest in a Spanish diplomatic residence, on Thursday disclosed he met with senior military officials before a failed uprising against President Nicolas Maduro this week.

Suggesting coordination continues with armed forces figures in the campaign to oust Maduro, Lopez said more “military movements” were on the way.

But Maduro sought to show that the military remains on his side by appearing early on Thursday on state television with his defense minister and military operations chief.

The pre-dawn military uprising on Tuesday urged on by opposition leader and Lopez ally Juan Guaido, failed to gain steam as security forces loyal to Maduro cracked down on demonstrators who had taken to the streets in support of Guaido.

“The fissure that opened on April 30 will become a crack, and that crack is what is going to break the levee,” Lopez told reporters from Spain’s Caracas diplomatic residence.

He said he had met with commanders and generals from different sectors of Venezuela’s armed forces in his home in the past three weeks. “There we committed ourselves to contribute to the end of the usurpation,” he added.

Lopez, a firebrand politician, and Guaido’s mentor was arrested during a protest movement in 2014 and transferred to house arrest in 2017. He appeared together with Guaido and dozens of soldiers on Tuesday after escaping his home and before seeking refuge at the Spanish residence.

Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez talks to the media at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez talks to the media at the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas, Venezuela May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

A Venezuelan court on Thursday issued a warrant for Lopez’s arrest, saying he violated an order that required him to remain under house arrest and restricted his ability to speak publicly. A Spanish government spokeswoman said Madrid had no intention of turning him over to Venezuelan authorities.

Lopez’s surprise escape provided a jolt to Guaido’s movement, more than three months after he invoked the country’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Guaido, the head of the opposition-run National Assembly, has been recognized as the South American country’s legitimate leader by more than 50 countries, including the United States and Spain. Maduro, a socialist who retains the support of Russia, Cuba and China, calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to orchestrate a coup against him.

FOUR DIE IN CLASHES

Lopez’s comments came after two days of upheaval in the OPEC nation, which is undergoing a hyperinflationary economic collapse marked by shortages of food and medicine.

Tens of thousands took to the streets across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday, heeding Guaido’s call to keep the pressure on Maduro. Clashes with security forces left four dead, along with hundreds injured or detained.

Maduro, in his early morning speech, sought to reject claims by the United States and the opposition that the armed forces high command was prepared to turn against him to allow Guaido to form a transition government and call elections.

U.S. officials have said Venezuela’s military high command was in discussions with the Supreme Court and representatives of Guaido over Maduro’s exit. Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, told broadcaster VPI on Wednesday that Maduro cannot trust his top military leaders.

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton on Tuesday said Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, along with the Supreme Court’s chief justice and the commander of the presidential guard, had told the opposition Maduro needed to leave power.

But Padrino stood beside Maduro, who took over from the late President Hugo Chavez in 2013, in Thursday’s address.

“Do not come to buy us with a dishonest offer, as if we do not have dignity,” Padrino said.

Military operations chief Remigio Ceballos also appeared in the broadcast.

NEXT STEPS

The military is seen as key in Venezuela’s standoff.

Lopez did not detail whom in the military he had met with, but representatives of the opposition have approached several key figures in the armed forces in recent months, including a high-ranking army general, according to former General Antonio Rivero and another former senior member of Venezuela’s military who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Guaido has promised amnesty for members of the armed forces who join his cause. In a tweet about the death of a protester at the hands of security forces on Wednesday, he said, “The murderers will have to take responsibility for their crimes” and members of the armed forces were “sworn to protect the people, not a usurper who hides while you watch them kill your brothers.”

Guaido has suggested a general strike as the next step to pressure Maduro, while U.S. officials have said more sanctions are coming to choke off cash flow to Venezuela’s government. The United States has already imposed sanctions on state-run oil company PDVSA, the OPEC nation’s economic lifeblood.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top national security aides discussed a range of possible steps to squeeze Maduro and give eventual economic support to Venezuela if he falls, a senior administration official said.

The talks included sanctions, diplomacy and defense options, the official said, adding that there was “significant progress on defense matters” without providing details or saying whether any decisions had been made.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said U.S. military action in Venezuela is possible but diplomatic and economic pressure are the preferred ways to oust Maduro.

In an interview with Brazilian newspaper Folha published on Thursday, Guaido said he did not rule out a foreign military intervention to oust Maduro, but that it would be the “last option” after pressuring for a “free transition.”

Russia said on Thursday it had agreed to continue talks on Venezuela with the United States, while China called for a political settlement via dialogue.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas Vivian Sequera and Luc Cohen in CaracasAdditional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Marcelo Rochabrun in Sao PauloEditing by Alistair Bell and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. wants U.N. to revoke credentials of Maduro’s government

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), talk during their meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela April 9, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called on the United Nations on Wednesday to revoke the U.N. credentials of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government and recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader.

He said the United States had drafted a U.N. resolution and called on all states to support it.

“The time has come for the United Nations to recognize interim president Juan Guaido as the legitimate president of Venezuela and seat his representative in this body,” Pence told the U.N. Security Council.

Diplomats said it is unlikely Washington will get the support needed to adopt such a measure. It was not immediately clear if Pence was proposing a resolution in the 15-member Security Council or the 193-member General Assembly.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Venezuela blackout drags into third day, Maduro announces ‘load management’

Locals gather outside a closed store during a blackout in Caracas, Venezuela March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Tibisay Romero

CARACAS/VALENCIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Wednesday called on supporters to take to the streets this weekend to protest a nationwide power outage, while President Nicolas Maduro announced a “load management” plan for the coming days.

Residents scrambled to find food and water as businesses closed and school was canceled in the second major blackout this month. Power went out in much of the country on Monday afternoon, less than two weeks after electricity was restored following the worst blackout in Venezuela’s history.

“The time has come to agitate in every state, in every community, to get water back, get electricity back, get gas back,” said Guaido, the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing President Nicolas Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate, said the protest was scheduled for Saturday, without offering further details.

In an appearance by telephone on state television on Wednesday night, Maduro blamed the more recent blackout on a “terrorist attack” on the country’s Guri hydroelectric complex, which supplies power to most of the country, by the “perverse right-wing.”

“Thanks to Corpoelec workers we will be guaranteeing service,” Maduro said, referring to the state electricity company. “But we will need to apply a load management plan in the coming days.”

Maduro did not provide details of the plan. He said that school and work activities would be suspended on Thursday, and called on supporters to take to the streets on Saturday – the same day Guaido called a protest.

Guaido and opposition critics have said the outages are the result of a decade of corruption and mismanagement.

Power had returned to around half the country’s 24 states on Tuesday night, but went out again at dawn on Wednesday.

While blackouts have long been common in the OPEC member nation, particularly outside of capital Caracas, their increasing frequency and severity have left residents concerned that intermittent power may be the new normal.

“I think this is going to be worse than the first blackout,” said Julio Barrios, 60, an accountant in Caracas who was looking for open stores to buy food or ice. “A lot of people want to work but there’s no transportation, and if there’s nobody working the country will be paralyzed.”

In the western agriculture-heavy state of Tachira, more than 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of milk spoiled after 40 hours without electricity for refrigeration, according to Leonardo Figueroa, the head of the state ranchers’ association.

‘GET OUT’

In Valencia, Venezuela’s third-largest city, residents without electricity or gas in their homes cut wood off trees to cook food before it rotted.

“I am searching for wood because there is no gas in this oil-producing country, there are no public services,” said Morris de Castro, a lawyer. “It is impossible to live a normal life and we feel like we are falling backwards.”

Guaido has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by most Western and South American countries, and the United States has hit Maduro’s government with sanctions meant to cripple the Socialist Party’s sources of income.

But Maduro has held on thanks to continued loyalty by top military commanders and diplomatic support from Russia and China, who accuse the United States of seeking a coup against him. Two Russian air force planes carrying nearly 100 troops landed outside Caracas on Saturday, escalating tensions.

While hosting Guaido’s wife, journalist Fabiana Rosales, in the White House on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump said “Russia has to get out” and that “all options are open” as to how to make that happen.

Russia has said the visit is part of a military technical cooperation agreement with Venezuela.

The blackout has harmed the oil industry, the lifeblood of Venezuela’s struggling economy. The country’s main oil export port of Jose and four crude upgraders, needed to convert Venezuela’s heavy oil into exportable grades, have been halted since Monday, industry sources said.

“Power came back at around 10 a.m., but we still were not in a condition to restart,” a worker at one of the upgraders said, adding that workers would attempt to restart the facilities later on Wednesday.

Julio Castro of non-profit organization Doctors for Health said an 81-year-old woman died on Tuesday in a hospital in the central state of Aragua because the elevators were not functioning and she could not get to the area where she could receive treatment.

The group said 24 people died during the previous blackout in public hospitals due to problems caused by the lack of power.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera and Deisy Buitrago in Caracas and Tibisay Romero in Valencia, Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas, Anggy Polanco in San Cristobal and Mircely Guanipa in Punto Fijo; writing by Brian Ellsworth and Luc Cohen; editing by Susan Thomas, Rosalba O’Brien & Simon Cameron-Moore)