U.S. opens Venezuelan diplomatic office in Colombian capital

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Charge d'Affaires for Venezuela James Story, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Bogota, Colombia April 12, 2019. Picture taken April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Julia Symmes Cobb

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department on Wednesday opened a representative office for Venezuela in Bogota, Colombia, and said it will continue its opposition to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and support for opposition leader Juan Guaido from there.

The Venezuela Affairs Unit (VAU) will be headed by James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, who was among the last American diplomats withdrawn from the U.S. embassy in Caracas in March as conditions deteriorated in the country.

“The VAU will continue to work for the restoration of democracy and the constitutional order in that country, and the security and well-being of the Venezuelan people,” the department said in a statement.

Washington has been trying to cut off money to Maduro’s government in an economic and diplomatic campaign aimed at pressuring the socialist leader to step down.

The United States and most Western nations support Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, as the country’s legitimate president. Maduro has accused Guaido of mounting a U.S.-directed coup attempt earlier this year.

In Caracas on Wednesday, Guaido announced the appointment of four new ministers for foreign relations, economic affairs, asset protection and human rights. The majority of them are out of the country due to legal measures from Maduro’s government.

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A man holds vegetables after he scavenges for food in a rubbish bin in Caracas, Venezuela February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso/File Photo

Leopoldo López, founder and leader of Guaido’s Volutad Popular political party, will be coordinating the new ministers. López has been in the residence of the Spanish ambassador in Caracas since May after ending his house arrest.

The new team is intended “to address the complex humanitarian emergency … and, of course, to prepare for the transition of government,” Guaido said.

More than 1.4 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia in recent years, fleeing the deep political and economic crisis that has caused long-running shortages of food and medicines.

Colombia has borne the brunt of mass migration from its neighbor.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

In Venezuela talks, Maduro allies said they would consider fresh elections: sources

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Mayela Armas and Corina Pons

CARACAS (Reuters) – Allies of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro had discussed holding a presidential election in the coming months during talks to find a breakthrough in the country’s political crisis, four sources told Reuters on Monday.

Opposition politicians will travel to Washington to speak to U.S. officials this week, the sources said.

Maduro and a delegation representing opposition leader Juan Guaido have been meeting in Barbados as part of talks to resolve a political stalemate in the struggling OPEC nation that is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

Guaido’s delegation had proposed a presidential vote in six to nine months on a number of conditions including changes to the elections council and supreme court, said the sources, who asked not to be identified because the talks are confidential.

The government had, in theory, agreed to a presidential vote on the condition that the United States lift economic sanctions, Maduro be allowed to run as the Socialist Party candidate, and that the vote be held in a year, one of the sources said.

However, the government has since pulled out of the talks to protest a new round of sanctions by Washington, and no new date has been set to resume the discussions, despite a visit by Norway foreign ministry officials – acting as mediators – seeking to revive them.

U.S. officials have expressed support for an election but without Maduro as a candidate, which may be a point of discussion, two of the sources said.

Venezuela’s information ministry, Norway’s foreign ministry and the U.S. State Department did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Preparing the groundwork for an election requires a raft of changes to state institutions, including both the elections council and the supreme court – both of which have aggressively intervened in election processes to favor Maduro.

Another possible roadblock would be the existence of the Constituent Assembly, an all-powerful legislative body controlled by Socialist Party supporters that opposition leaders say could also intervene in any potential vote.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas and Corina Pons in Caracas; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuela’s Guaido urges troops to rise, mass protests planned

An opposition supporter waves a Venezuelan flag near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota", in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday called for a military uprising to oust President Nicolas Maduro and armed factions exchanged gunfire outside a Caracas air base as the country hit a new crisis point after years of political and economic chaos.

Several dozen armed men in military uniform accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a protest outside the La Carlota air base, Reuters witnesses said, but the incident fizzled out and did not appear to be part of an immediate attempt by the opposition to take power by force.

Guaido, in a video posted on Twitter earlier on Tuesday, said he had begun the “final phase” of his campaign to topple Maduro, calling on Venezuelans and the military to back him.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino called the latest instability a “coup movement” but several hours after Guaido’s announcement there was no sign of any other military activity and there were no immediate reports of casualties. Guaido later left a rally he was holding with military supporters at the air base.

Maduro said he had spoken with military leaders and that they had shown him “their total loyalty.” “Nerves of steel!” Maduro wrote on Twitter. “I call for maximum popular mobilization to assure the victory of peace. We will win!”

The move was Guaido’s boldest effort yet to convince the military to rise up against Maduro. If it fails, it could be seen as evidence that he lacks the support he says he has. It might also encourage the authorities, which have already stripped him of parliamentary immunity and opened multiple investigations into him, to arrest him.

The United States is among some 50 countries that recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s president and has imposed sanctions to try to dislodge Maduro who they say won re-election last year through fraud.

Oil prices topped $73, partly driven higher by the uncertainty in Venezuela, an OPEC member whose oil exports have been hit by U.S. sanctions and an economic crisis.

A former U.S. official said that while it was unclear whether Guaido’s efforts would touch off a broader military uprising against Maduro, it appeared aimed at building momentum toward May Day Street protests planned for Wednesday and making them a turning point.

Guaido has said Wednesday’s protests will be “the largest march in Venezuela’s history” and part of what he calls the “definitive phase” of his effort to take office in order to call fresh elections.

TRUMP BRIEFED

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than three million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

Guaido, the leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate.

U.S. President Donald Trump “has been briefed and is monitoring the ongoing situation,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Tuesday. The White House declined comment on whether the administration had been consulted or had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton appeared to back Guaido’s actions on Tuesday. “The FANB must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people. It should stand by the National Assembly and the legitimate institutions against the usurpation of democracy,” Bolton tweeted, referring to the FANB armed forces.

Conservative Republicans in Washington welcomed the reports from Venezuela. Senator Marco Rubio, a hardliner on Venezuela, urged Venezuelans to take to the streets: “Do not allow this moment to slip away. It may not come again,” he wrote on Twitter.

Venezuelan Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez on Tuesday tweeted that the government was confronting a small group of “military traitors” seeking to promote a coup.

Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, a legislative body that acts in support of the government, said the opposition had not been able to take over the air base. He urged Maduro’s backers to rally at the presidential palace in Caracas to support him.

Guaido, in the video on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, who had been placed under house arrest.

“The national armed forces have taken the correct decision, and they are counting on the support of the Venezuelan people,” Guaido said.

MADURO SUPPORT

Maduro, for his part, has appeared to retain control of state institutions and the loyalty of senior military officers.

He has called Guaido a U.S-backed puppet who seeks to oust him in a coup. The government has arrested his top aide, stripped Guaido of his parliamentary immunity and opened multiple probes. It has also barred him from leaving the country, a ban Guaido openly violated earlier this year.

Last week, Guaido said his congressional ally – opposition lawmaker Gilber Caro – had been detained, and that 11 members of his team had been summoned to appear before the Sebin intelligence agency.

Lopez, seen with Guaido, appeared to have left his home for the first time since being placed under house arrest in 2017, after three years in jail.

“I have been freed by soldiers on the side of the constitution and President Guaido,” he tweeted. All of us have to mobilize. It’s time to win our freedom.”

A soldier in the group with Guaido, who identified himself just as Rivas, denied government accusations that they had been tricked into backing Guaido.

“We’re all afraid,” he told Reuters, “but we had to do it”.

Spain, instrumental in setting the European Union line, said that, although it considered Guaido the legitimate leader of Venezuela, it did not support a military coup and wanted to see elections.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle and Roberta Rampton in Washington; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Peter Graff Bill Rigby and Alistair Bell)

Venezuela detains top aide to Guaido in move U.S. calls ‘big mistake’

Personal belongings are seen on the floor at the residence of Roberto Marrero, chief of staff to opposition leader Juan Guaido, after he was detained by Venezuelan intelligence agents, according to legislators, in Caracas, Venezuela March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado

By Vivian Sequera and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Thursday intelligence agents had detained his chief of staff during a pre-dawn raid, a move by President Nicolas Maduro that the Trump administration said would “not go unanswered.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s 2018 re-election a fraud. He has been recognized by the United States and dozens of other Western nations as the country’s legitimate leader.

Maduro, who has overseen a dramatic collapse of the OPEC nation’s economy, has called Guaido a puppet of the United States and said he should “face justice,” but has not explicitly ordered his arrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, called for the immediate release of Roberto Marrero. “Maduro has made another big mistake,” Bolton said on Twitter.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said earlier on Thursday that “we will hold accountable those involved.”

Top U.S. officials have repeatedly warned Maduro not to touch Guaido and his inner circle, but it is unclear what more they can do.

They have threatened ever harsher sanctions intended to further isolate Maduro and cut off his administration’s sources of revenue, but the humanitarian and political costs of further blanket measures could be high. Millions of Venezuelans are already suffering shortages of food and medicine.

Guaido said the raids by agents from the SEBIN intelligence service on the residences of Marrero and another opposition legislator, Sergio Vergara, showed Maduro’s “weakness” and that attempts to intimidate him would not derail the opposition campaign.

“As they cannot take the interim president prisoner, so they seek out people closest to him, threaten relatives, carry out kidnappings,” Guaido told a news conference.

Marrero recorded a voice message as SEBIN agents were trying to enter his home in Caracas’ upscale Las Mercedes neighborhood, which Guaido’s press team forwarded to reporters.

“I am in my house and the SEBIN is here. Unfortunately, they have come for me. Keep up the fight, don’t stop and look after (Guaido),” Marrero said.

Vergara, Marrero’s neighbor, said some 40 armed SEBIN agents forced their way into their homes and spent three hours inside. The SEBIN left with Marrero and Vergara’s driver, the legislator said in a video posted on his Twitter account.

Guaido said that Marrero had told Vergara that agents had planted two rifles and a grenade in his house.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“HELD TO ACCOUNT”

Since January, Venezuelan authorities have arrested over 1,000 people in connection with anti-government demonstrations, most of them arbitrarily, rights groups say.

United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday that Venezuelan security forces, backed by pro-government militias, have quashed peaceful protests with excessive use of force, killings and torture.

On Thursday, the UN human rights office tweeted its concern over Marrero’s detention and urged the government to respect due process and reveal his whereabouts. The Lima Group regional bloc also denounced Marrero’s arrest and said Maduro was responsible for his safety.

Maduro has said his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries and blames U.S. financial and oil sector sanctions for the country’s situation.

Venezuela is reeling from annual inflation topping 2 million percent, which has fueled malnutrition and preventable disease and spurred an exodus of more than 3 million citizens since 2015.

While Trump has said all options remain open, there appears to be little support in Washington or regional Latin American capitals for any military intervention.

Guaido traveled around South America in February to drum up diplomatic support, defying a travel ban imposed by the pro-government Supreme Court.

He later entered the country via Venezuela’s principal airport without being detained by immigration officials.

Venezuela’s chief state prosecutor, Tarek Saab, last week asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Guaido for alleged involvement in the “sabotage” of the country’s electrical network, after the longest nationwide power blackout in decades.

The opposition, along with electrical experts, said the power outage was due to the government’s incompetence and years without maintenance.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas, Susan Heavey in Washington, and Hugh Bronstein in Buenos Aires; Writing by Angus Berwick; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien)

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)

U.S. to deliver over 200 tons of aid to Venezuelan border

Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. military aircraft are expected to deliver more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, with the shipment likely to take place on Saturday, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. State Department planned to make an announcement about the shipment on Friday but provided no further details. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. special envoy on Venezuela last week said the aid effort was being coordinated with the opposition team but said the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich South American country that has left millions struggling to buy food and medicines and has fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses. Maduro has refused to let supplies in.

Self-declared president Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself interim president last month, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Seeking to strengthen support for Guaido, the United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis. However, opposition member Gustavo Tarre has said the sole aim is to ease “the suffering of Venezuelans” and has denied any political, economic or military motive. [nL1N2090UC]

(Reporting By Idrees Ali; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Exclusive: U.S. in direct contact with Venezuelan military, urging defections – source

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s Military Attache at its Washington embassy to the United States, is interviewed by Reuters after announcing that he is defecting from the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Luc Cohen, Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is holding direct communications with members of Venezuela’s military urging them to abandon leader Nicolas Maduro and is also preparing new sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on him, a senior White House official said.

The Trump administration expects further military defections from Maduro’s side, the official told Reuters in an interview, despite only a few senior officers having done so since opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president last month, earning the recognition of the United States and dozens of other countries.

“We believe these to be those first couple pebbles before we start really seeing bigger rocks rolling down the hill,” the official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re still having conversations with members of the former Maduro regime, with military members, although those conversations are very, very limited.”

The official declined to provide details on the discussions or the level at which they are being held, and it was unclear whether such contacts could create cracks in the Venezuelan socialist leader’s support from the military, which is pivotal to his grip on power.

With the Venezuelan military still apparently loyal to Maduro, a source in Washington close to the opposition expressed doubts whether the Trump administration has laid enough groundwork to spur a wider mutiny in the ranks where many officers are suspected of benefiting from corruption and drug trafficking.

Guaido says the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won a second term as president was a sham and on Jan. 23 invoked a constitutional provision to declare himself president, promising free and fair elections.

VENEZUELAN ASSETS

The U.S. government also sees European allies as likely to do more to prevent Maduro from transferring or hiding Venezuela government assets held outside the country, the U.S. official said.

Major European countries have joined the United States in backing Guaido but they have stopped short of the sweeping oil sanctions and financial measures that Washington has imposed.

At the same time, the Trump administration is readying further possible sanctions on Venezuela, the official said.

Previous rounds have targeted dozens of Venezuelan military and government officials, including Maduro himself, and last month finally hit the OPEC member’s vital oil sector. But the administration has stopped short of imposing so-called “secondary” sanctions, which would punish non-U.S. companies for doing business with the Venezuela government or the state oil monopoly PDVSA.

The U.S. official said that Washington had every tool available to apply pressure on Maduro and his associates “to accept a legitimate democratic transition.”

The U.S. government is also weighing possible sanctions on Cuban military and intelligence officials whom it says are helping Maduro remain in power, a second U.S. official and person familiar with the deliberations have told Reuters.

Maduro’s government has accused Guaido, who has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, of attempting to stage a U.S.-directed coup.

General Francisco Yanez of the air force’s high command became the first active Venezuelan general to recognize Guaido, but he is one of about 2,000 generals. Venezuela’s chief military attache to the United States also said he was defecting late last month.

Guaido has actively courted members of the military with promises of amnesty and preferential legal treatment if they disavow Maduro and disobey his orders, and Washington this week raised the prospect of dropping sanctions on senior Venezuelan officers if they recognize Guaido.

Maduro still has the support of the military high command, and now routinely appears in pre-recorded events at military bases where officers stand behind him and chant triumphal slogans such as “Loyal always, traitors never.”

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Luc Cohen and Roberta Rampton; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

EU parliament recognizes Guaido as Venezuelan interim president

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido attends a meeting with supporters to present a government plan of the opposition in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Parliament recognized Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido as de facto head of state on Thursday, heightening international pressure on the OPEC member’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

EU lawmakers voted 439 in favor to 104 against, with 88 abstentions, at a special session in Brussels to recognize Venezuelan congress head Guaido as interim leader.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

In a statement with the non-binding vote, the parliament urged the bloc’s 28 governments to follow suit and consider Guaido “the only legitimate interim president” until there were “new free, transparent and credible presidential elections”.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who spoke to Guaido on Wednesday and wants further EU sanctions on Venezuelan officials, urged counterparts to embrace the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

“Parliament has spoken. For us, Mr. Guaido is the president of Venezuela and we do hope that the European Union will find a united position on this,” he told reporters on arrival at a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Bucharest.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he was ready to join a common position on Venezuela if the bloc could agree what next steps to take.

Though accusing Maduro of stifling democracy, the European Union is nervous at the precedent of a self-declaration, so has been reluctant to follow the United States and most Latin American nations with immediate recognition of Guaido.

Britain, France, Germany and Spain said on Saturday, however, that they would recognize Guaido unless Maduro called elections within eight days. But the EU as a whole has not set a time limit in its call for a new presidential vote.

Maduro has dismissed the demands as an unacceptable ultimatum from the corrupt elite of spent colonial powers.

“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said at the weekend.

The European Parliament has no foreign policy powers but sees itself as a champion of human rights.

“Those who are demonstrating today in the streets of Venezuela are not Europeans, but they fight for the same values for which we fight,” Spanish center-right EU lawmaker Esteban Gonzalez Pons said in a statement.

As Venezuela has sunk into economic and political crisis that has brought mass emigration and hyperinflation, the EU imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on officials to decry what it views as rights violations and the rupture of democracy.

On Thursday, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said seven foreign journalists were detained in Venezuela, including French and Spanish reporters. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for their release.

(Additional reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)