Venezuela dialysis patients face uncertain fate after power cuts

FILE PHOTO: Lesbia Avila de Molina, 53, a kidney disease patient, holds her stomach due to pain in her house during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela, April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

By Mariela Nava and Ueslei Marcelino

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Seconds before William Lopez was set to be connected to a dialysis machine at a state-run clinic in the western Venezuelan city of Maracaibo in April, the power went out.

Missing dialysis treatment, which removes toxins that build up in the blood of people who suffer kidney failure, leaves Lopez feeling dizzy and nauseous. Like any chronic kidney patient, he could die if he goes too long without treatment.

Unable to complete his treatment that day, Lopez had little choice but to return home.

When he arrived, the power was out there as well.

“The impotence that I feel makes me want to cry,” said Lopez, 45, one of 11,000 Venezuelans whose dialysis treatment has been thrown into disarray by a wave of blackouts in the oil-rich but crisis-stricken South American country.

“Some people go to sleep while they are in treatment. I do not, because I am scared I will never wake up.”

FILE PHOTO: Children use mobile phones during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

FILE PHOTO: Children use mobile phones during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela April 12, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Electricity has largely been restored to the capital city of Caracas after two nation-wide power outages in March and April.

But many other parts of Venezuela now have power for only several hours per day under a rationing plan put in effect by President Nicolas Maduro.

Few places have been harder-hit than sweltering Maracaibo, the country’s second-largest city, which still experiences power cuts lasting 10 hours or more per day. That has led to water shortages, making it hard to provide the minimum 120 liters (32 gallons) of water doctors say is needed for a full dialysis session.

Dialysis requires consistent supplies of power and water to provide the recommended treatment of three or four hours, three times a week.

Venezuela’s public hospitals for years have provided free dialysis treatment, thanks to abundant oil revenue and generous health-care spending. But since the economy crashed along with oil prices in 2014, new equipment rarely arrives and the existing machines are not maintained, doctors say.

Maduro says healthcare problems are caused by U.S. sanctions that blocked funds in foreign bank accounts that could be used to pay for imports of equipment and medicine. He says the recent power outages are the result of Washington-backed sabotage of the electrical system.

His adversaries say those problems were created by incompetence and corruption, and that he has refused to recognize the severity of the situation.

The information ministry and the health ministry did not reply to requests for comment.

Lesbia Avila said she woke up feeling ill one recent morning after receiving just one hour and 40 minutes of treatment the prior day due to lack of power and equipment shortages at her Maracaibo clinic. She said she feels like she is choking when she does not receive full treatment.

“I just ask God that if I die, it will not be of choking,” said Avila, 53, as she lay in a hammock at her home in a working class neighborhood in western Maracaibo.

While speaking to a reporter, she turned pale and began to sweat. Her husband, who was laid off from his job at a nearby auto parts factory two months ago, took an old refrigerator drawer for her to vomit into.

She said at the privately-owned dialysis center where she goes for treatment, only 18 of 35 dialysis machines are working.

The situation is similar at the 136 state-owned dialysis clinics across the country, said Carlos Marquez, the president of the Venezuelan Nephrology Society. Many of the country’s 1,600 machines are not working, he said. The health ministry does not publish figures.

Some private Maracaibo dialysis centers charge patients $70 for a three-hour session, said 48-year-old kidney-disease patient Antonio Briceno. That is equivalent to nearly a year of minimum wage.

“I should have been born rich to be able to buy myself a new kidney,” said Aidalis Guanipa, 25, who lives with her 83-year-old grandmother in Maracaibo. They get by on her grandmother’s pension and from sales of homemade sweets.

“I have not had dialysis for two days because there has been no electricity. I am scared.”

 

(Additional reporting by Mayela Armas and Vivian Sequera in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; 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)

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)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for uprising but military loyal to Maduro for now

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Vivian Sequera, Angus Berwick and Luc Cohen

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Tuesday made his strongest call yet to the military to help him oust President Nicolas Maduro but there were no concrete signs of defection from the armed forces leadership.

Early on Tuesday, several dozen armed troops accompanying Guaido clashed with soldiers supporting Maduro at a rally in Caracas, and large anti-government protests in the streets turned violent. But by Tuesday afternoon an uneasy peace had returned and there was no indication that the opposition planned to take power through military force.

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase "La Carlota" in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Opposition demonstrators take cover from tear gas on a street near the Generalisimo Francisco de Miranda Airbase “La Carlota” in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that “as we understand it” Maduro had been ready to depart for socialist ally Cuba, but had been persuaded to stay by Russia, which has also been a steadfast supporter.

In a message posted on his social media accounts on Tuesday evening, Guaido told supporters to take to the streets once again on Wednesday. He reiterated his call for the armed forces to take his side and said Maduro did not have the military’s support.

“Today Venezuela has the opportunity to peacefully rebel against a tyrant who is closing himself in,” Guaido said.

Maduro appeared in a state television broadcast on Tuesday night flanked by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and socialist party Vice President Diosdado Cabello, among others.

“Today the goal was a big show,” Maduro said, referring to the military members who sided with Guaido as a “small group.” “Their plan failed, their call failed, because Venezuela wants peace.”

He said he had reinstated Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez as the head of the Sebin intelligence agency, without providing details on the exit of Manuel Cristopher Figuera at the helm of the agency. Cristopher Figuera replaced Gonzalez Lopez at Sebin last year.

Other U.S. officials said three top Maduro loyalists – Padrino, Supreme Court chief judge Maikel Moreno and presidential guard commander Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dala – had been in talks with the opposition and were ready to support a peaceful transition of power.

“They negotiated for a long time on the means of restoring democracy but it seems that today they are not going forward,” said U.S. envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said: “All agreed that Maduro had to go.” Neither provided evidence.

Venezuela’s U.N. Ambassador Samuel Moncada rejected Bolton’s remarks as “propaganda.”

Flanked by uniformed men, Padrino said in a broadcast that the armed forces would continue to defend the constitution and “legitimate authorities,” and that military bases were operating as normal. Moreno issued a call for calm on Twitter.

Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s re-election in 2018 was illegitimate. But Maduro has held on, despite economic chaos, most Western countries backing Guaido, increased U.S. sanctions, and huge protests.

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

Soldiers ride on top of a car with supporters of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido (not pictured), who many nations have recognised as the country’s rightful interim ruler, during anti-government protests, in Caracas, Venezuela April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Eduardo Ramirez

BOLD, BUT RISKY, MOVE

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

Tens of thousands of people marched in Caracas in support of Guaido early on Tuesday, clashing with riot police along the main Francisco Fajardo thoroughfare. A National Guard armored car slammed into protesters who were throwing stones and hitting the vehicle.

Human rights groups said 109 people were injured in the incidents, most of them hit with pellets or rubber bullets.

Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis despite its vast oil reserves. Shortages of food and medicine have prompted more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate in recent years.

The slump has worsened this year with large areas of territory left in the dark for days at a time by power outages.

“My mother doesn’t have medicine, my economic situation is terrible, my family has had to emigrate. We don’t earn enough money. We have no security. But we are hopeful, and I think that this is the beginning of the end of this regime,” said Jose Madera, 42, a mechanic, sitting atop his motorbike.

In a video on his Twitter account, Guaido was accompanied by men in military uniform and leading opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, a surprise public appearance for a man who has been under house arrest since 2017.

Chile’s foreign minister said later Tuesday that Lopez and his family had entered Chile’s diplomatic residence.

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

WHO BACKED WHO?

The crisis has pitted supporters of Guaido, including the United States, the European Union, and most Latin American nations, against Maduro’s allies, which include Russia, Cuba and China.

The White House declined to comment on whether Washington had advance knowledge of what Guaido was planning.

Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s envoy to the United States, told reporters in Washington that the Trump administration did not help coordinate Tuesday’s events.

“This is a movement led by Venezuelans,” he said.

But accusations flew back and forth, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza saying the events had been “directly planned” in Washington and Bolton saying that fears of Cuban retaliation had propped up Maduro. Neither provided evidence.

Trump threatened “a full and complete embargo, together with highest-level sanctions” on Cuba for its support of Maduro.

Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro threw his support behind Guaido and said Venezuelans were “enslaved by a dictator.” But his security adviser, a retired general, said Guaido’s support among the military appeared “weak.”

Russia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday accused the Venezuelan opposition of resorting to violence in what it said was a brazen attempt to draw the country’s armed forces into clashes. Turkey also criticized the opposition.

The United Nations and other countries urged a peaceful solution and dialogue.

 

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Vivian Sequera, Corina Pons, Mayela Armas, Deisy Buitrago, and Luc Cohen in Caracas; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Lesley Wroughton and Roberta Rampton in Washington, Madeline Chambers in Berlin, and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Writing by Alistair Bell and Rosalba O’Brien; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Sonya Hepinstall)

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)

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)

Colombia rejects Russia warning against Venezuelan military action

Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during the presentation of a security report, accompanied by the military commands in the presidential palace, in Bogota, Colombia April 2, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia on Tuesday rejected a Russian warning against foreign military intervention in Venezuela and said it supported a peaceful transition to democracy in the neighboring South American country.

“Colombia reiterates that the transition to democracy must be conducted by the Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a statement.

He was responding to a March 28 letter from the upper house of Russia’s parliament, forwarded to Colombia’s Congress by Russian Ambassador Sergei Koshkin, that said the “illegitimate use of military force against Venezuela by other states that support the opposition will be interpreted … as an act of aggression against a sovereign state.”

Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as his nation descended into political turmoil this year. The United States and dozens of other nations have backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Colombia, which supports Guaido, has repeatedly denied it has any intention of launching a military offensive across its border with Venezuela.

But in his statement on Tuesday, Trujillo said military support for Maduro’s socialist government risked harming the transition to democracy while threatening regional peace and security.

The March touchdown near Caracas of two Russian air force planes carrying some 100 Russian special forces and cyber-security personnel has raised international concerns about Moscow’s backing for Maduro.

Russia, which has supplied fighter jets, tanks, and air defense systems to Venezuela, has dismissed U.S. criticism of its military cooperation with Caracas saying it is not interfering in the Latin American country’s internal affairs and poses no threat to regional stability.

Colombia acted as a staging ground in February as the United States and other countries supported Guaido’s effort to transport hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Maduro, who dismisses Guaido as a U.S. puppet, blocked the aid and Venezuelan troops pushed back protesters with tear gas.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape widespread food and medicine shortages in their chaotic homeland, seeking jobs locally and passage into other Latin American countries.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Tom Brown)

Venezuelans set up burning barricades over lack of power, water

Demonstrators set up a fire barricade at a protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS (Reuters) – Angry Venezuelans set up burning barricades near the presidential palace in Caracas and in other parts of the country on Sunday in protests over constant power outages and shortages of drinking water in the wake of two major blackouts this month.

The situation has fueled frustration with the government of President Nicolas Maduro and frayed nerves as schools and much of the nation’s commerce have been interrupted by problems with public services for nearly three weeks.

Protesters, some carrying rocks and their faces covered, burned tires and tree trunks along a stretch of downtown Caracas as they demanded Maduro improve the situation.

“We’re here fighting for water and power, we’ve gone twenty-some days without water,” said Yofre Gamez, 32, an informal vendor. “They put the power on for two hours, then turn it off at night, it comes on the next day for half an hour and then it goes off again – we’re tired of this.”

A Reuters witness heard shots ring out as Gamez spoke.

Demonstrators reported that one woman had been injured by gunfire, which they attributed to pro-government gangs. Reuters was unable to confirm who fired the shots.

Similar protests took place in other parts of the country, including the central state of Carabobo, where demonstrators burned tires and blocked roads, according to witnesses.

Rights group Penal Forum said that 12 people were arrested nationwide in protests against public services.

Venezuela suffered a week-long nationwide blackout starting on March 7 that left hospitals unable to attend to the sick and businesses giving away perishable food before it rotted.

The power went out again on March 25 and has been intermittent since.

Maduro in a televised broadcast on Sunday night announced a 30-day plan of “load management regime to balance the process of generation and transmission with consumption,” a phrase widely interpreted on social media as power rationing.

He did not offer further details on how this would work. Maduro first mentioned load management last week.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez said in a statement on Sunday that school activities, which were called off for most of last week, would remain suspended. Business hours will run only until 2 p.m., he said.

The government has offered a variety of explanations for the blackouts, ranging from Washington-backed cyberattacks to opposition-linked snipers causing fires at the country’s main hydroelectric dam.

Critics insist it is the result of more than a decade of corruption and incompetent management of the power system, which the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez nationalized in 2007.

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized by most Western nations as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state, has called on residents to organize at the neighborhood level to demand better services.

Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was fraudulent and that he usurped power when he was sworn in for a second term.

Maduro calls Guaido a puppet of the United States, which he says is seeking to force him from office through a coup.

Washington has levied crippling sanctions against Maduro’s government in an effort to push him from power. He has hung on in large part thanks to the continued loyalty of top military commanders.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Dan Grebler and Michael Perry)

White House warns Russia, others against sending troops to Venezuela

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House on Friday warned Russia and other countries backing President Nicolas Maduro against sending troops and military equipment to Venezuela, saying the United States would view such actions as a “direct threat” to the region’s security.

The warning comes after two Russian air force planes landed outside of Caracas on Saturday, believed to be carrying nearly 100 Russian special forces and cybersecurity personnel.

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this week said “Russia has to get out” of Venezuela. His national security adviser John Bolton issued a second warning on Friday in a strongly worded formal statement.

“We strongly caution actors external to the Western Hemisphere against deploying military assets to Venezuela, or elsewhere in the Hemisphere, with the intent of establishing or expanding military operations,” Bolton said.

“We will consider such provocative actions as a direct threat to international peace and security in the region. We will continue to defend and protect the interests of the United States, and those of our partners in the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

The United States and most other Western countries support Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to declare himself interim president, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Russia and China support Maduro, who has said Guaido is a puppet of Washington.

Russia has said it sent “specialists” to Venezuela under a military cooperation deal but insisted they posed no threat to regional stability, brushing aside Trump’s threat.

Trump said on Wednesday that “all options” were open to force Russia to pull its troops out of Venezuela.

Bolton condemned Maduro for using foreign military support to stay in power, saying it would “perpetuate the economic crisis that has destroyed Venezuela’s economy; and endanger regional stability.”

Maduro retains control of state functions and the country’s military. On Friday, Bolton also sent a Tweet urging Venezuela’s Defense Minister, Vladimir Padrino, to stop supporting Maduro.

Years of economic mismanagement have left the economy of OPEC member Venezuela in shambles, causing hyperinflation. Severe shortages of food and medicine are common, and power blackouts have exacerbated the crisis.

The United Nations estimates that about a quarter of Venezuelans need humanitarian aid, according to internal UN estimates seen by Reuters.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Tim Ahmann in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and James Dalgleish)