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)

Shortages plague Cuba as U.S. sanctions sharpen economic woes

FILE PHOTO: People buy chicken in a supermarket in Havana, Cuba May 13, 2019. REUTERS/Sarah Marsh

By Sarah Marsh

HAVANA (Reuters) – Israel Hidalgo and his wife left home around 7:30 a.m. to reach a supermarket across Havana, Cuba because they heard it might be selling chicken, a staple of the Cuban diet increasingly scarce on the shortage-plagued island.

After Cuba started limiting sales this month, partly blaming tightened U.S. economic sanctions on the Communist-run island, the couple wanted to buy as much as possible and lined up for three hours under the Caribbean sun to get tickets guaranteeing them their rations.

Inside, they lined up again to collect two bags of chicken thighs each, as fellow shoppers elbowed one another in pursuit of their own rations, and headed for the checkout feeling like they had won the lottery.

“We were born in this revolution and are used to rough times,” said Hidalgo, a 61-year old blacksmith. “We are bracing ourselves for it to get worse.”

Long lines outside shops with mostly bare shelves are increasingly common in Cuba, and the government has indeed signaled that things are going from bad to worse.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, in a speech last month, accused the Trump administration of engaging in an “asphyxiating financial persecution that makes the import of goods and resources of primary necessity particularly difficult.”

The degree to which new U.S. sanctions, due in part to Cuba’s support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, have compounded its economic woes is open to debate.

The economy had already stagnated in recent years in tandem with the implosion of strategic ally Venezuela, resulting in cuts in fuel and energy use by state entities and this year shortages of basic goods such as bread, chicken and eggs.

But the increase in sanctions, which have hit the key tourism sector and added to investor and bank jitters about dealing with Cuba, has some economists predicting the economy will slip from stagnation into a full-blown recession later this year.

The economy has averaged 1% annual growth over the last three years, compared with the 5% to 7% rate economists say is needed to recover fully from the depression caused by the fall of its former benefactor, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

“While the crisis will not be as bad as in the 1990s, it will have a worrying social impact on the most vulnerable households, which are already on subsistence salaries,” said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Colombia’s Universidad Javeriana Cali.

Bracing for harder economic times, the government has resorted to what it knows best to manage the crisis and prevent social unrest: more control.

Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz said two weeks ago the government would “temporarily” ration sales of a handful of basic products like eggs on a monthly basis, using ration books distributed after the 1959 Revolution, and limit the sale of others like chicken to ensure everyone gets their fair share.

“A CRITICAL MOMENT”

Some Cuban economists say the developing crisis stems fundamentally from an inefficient centrally-planned economy that imports more than two thirds of its food needs. Calling rationing little more than a short-term solution, they say the government must open up to a series of market-oriented economic reforms before the crisis deepens.

“This could be a critical moment that generates the consensus necessary to apply changes,” said Vidal. “The government needs to give more space to the private sector and investment.”

Cuba has enacted some economic reforms in recent years, including expanding the private sector from 2010 onward and introducing a new foreign investment law that cut taxes by around 50% in 2014.

But local economists like Omar Everleny say the reforms undertaken have been too cautious so far. The government has backtracked on overhauls of areas like agriculture and the dominant public sector remains deeply inefficient.

Cuba was already behind on an estimated $1.5 billion (£1.1 billion) in short-term commercial debt and warning of austerity before U.S. President Donald Trump started the latest round of tightening of the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

Aid from Venezuela, in the form of subsidized oil, had long masked the true extent of Cuba’s economic problems, but it started to fall from 2015 when a drop in oil prices roiled that OPEC nation’s economy.

Venezuela’s crude shipments to Cuba are now about half what they were four years ago, and they could soon fall further. Last month, the United States also began targeting vessels and companies that ship oil to the island from Venezuela for sanctions, threatening the energy grid and transportation.

U.S. sanctions against its old Cold War foe are also hitting the two bright spots in the otherwise glum economy: tourism and foreign investment. Both had boomed briefly after the announcement of a Cuba-U.S. detente in 2014.

Tourism revenues dropped by 4.6% in 2018, according to official data released last month. The announcement in 2017 of tighter travel restrictions on U.S. citizens played a role.

“At one point U.S. visits dropped more than 40 percent,” Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero told Reuters, adding he still hoped tourism would grow this year.

Meanwhile the Trump administration has activated a long dormant law under which Cuban-Americans can sue foreign companies that profit from their properties nationalized during the first years of the 1959 Revolution.

Western diplomats and businessmen have called the threat of potentially costly U.S. court battles another clear disincentive for banks and outside investors to do business with Cuba.

The United States has also threatened to further tighten restrictions on travel and to impose a cap on cash remittances to Cuba, measures that could hit the economy hard.

SIEGE MENTALITY

Cuba’s government has said it will continue moving down the path toward reform. But it has failed to respond so far to calls from the island’s entrepreneurs for basic changes such as the creation of wholesale markets for the private sector, and the right to import and export.

Instead of opening the economy further, some Western diplomats and analysts say there is risk Cuba’s leadership will adopt a siege mentality in the face of increased U.S. hostility. That could mean turning to allies like Russia, Vietnam and China for help to muddle through while keeping its stranglehold on economic life.

“The U.S. sanctions could be counterproductive,” said one diplomat who asked not to be identified. “Cuba has historically closed up at times like these.”

Cubans are not going hungry like they did during the so-called “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But they are increasingly connected to the rest of the world via the internet and foreign travel, and many have grown weary of government attempts to blame the U.S. embargo for the bulk of their country’s woes.

“We are in total freefall,” said Hidalgo’s wife, Carmen Lozano, 55, clinging to her two bags of rationed chicken. “They should have allowed free production and sales from the beginning of the revolution.”

Inequality has risen in recent years in Cuba and many believe the economic crisis could have a more disproportionate impact now than it might have in the past.

In a country where the government’s claim to legitimacy rests to a large extent on ensuring a certain level of equality, the authorities seem well aware that most people lack the cash to stock up on whatever basics they need on the black market.

“The government’s new rationing program is trying to address that simmering discontent by making the small quantities of goods that are in stock more widely available,” said William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University.

“The government understands that discontent over the economy is their biggest political vulnerability so they will do everything they can to maintain supplies of basic goods.”

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Additional Reporting by Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Tom Brown)

Soldiers held hostage, villagers killed: the untold story of Venezuelan aid violence

FILE PHOTO: A crashed car is seen at the scene where Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By Maria Ramirez

KUMARAKAPAY, Venezuela (Reuters) – At dawn on February 22, as Venezuela’s opposition was preparing to bring humanitarian aid into the country, a convoy of military vehicles drove into the indigenous village of Kumarakapay on its way to the Brazilian border.

Members of the Pemon community, a tribe whose territory includes the road to Brazil, wanted to keep the border open to ensure the aid got through despite President Nicolas Maduro commanding the military to block it.

Before dawn, the villagers had ordered military vehicles headed toward the border to turn around, citing the tribe’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy over their territory.

But the army convoy that arrived at dawn was moving quickly and the tribesman were only able to stop the last of the four vehicles – a Jeep carrying four National Guard officials, who told the villagers they were working on a mining project.

Believing the officers were on their way to block the aid, several villagers pulled them from the vehicle, seized their weapons and detained them, according to interviews with 15 villagers.

Some of the other soldiers, who had stopped several hundred meters ahead, got out of their vehicles with weapons in hand and approached. Shouting broke out and one of the soldiers fired a shot downward onto the road, according to the villagers and a cellphone video seen by Reuters that was filmed by a resident.

The remaining soldiers began firing repeatedly in the direction of the village as they ran back toward their vehicles, according to witnesses and the video.

The shooting would leave dozens of villagers wounded and three villagers dead, an unusually bloody confrontation between Venezuelan troops and indigenous people.

The incident itself was widely reported on the day it took place but has drawn little scrutiny until Reuters examined it.

The repercussions included the arrest of 23 Pemon tribesmen, some of whom say they were beaten in custody. Pemon villagers also held more than 40 members of the military hostage, some of whom suffered severe bites after being left half-naked atop ant nests in retribution for the killings, according to interviews with Pemon tribe members.

The incidents are a stark illustration of how Venezuela’s economic and political crises have undermined the once-close relationship between impoverished indigenous communities and a socialist movement launched two decades ago by Maduro’s predecessor, president Hugo Chavez, which had promised to help them.

“We couldn’t understand the attitude of Maduro’s regime of using arms against indigenous people,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, brother of Zoraida Rodriguez, one of the people killed in Kumarakapay.

Rodriguez now lives in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima after fleeing the violence in late February. He is one of nearly 1,000 members of the Pemon tribe who crossed into Brazil, many on foot, according to the Brazil office of the International Organization for Migration.

They now live in wooden huts they built themselves or camped under canvas donated by the United Nations refugee commission.

The incident followed recent tensions in southern Venezuela between military officers and Pemon tribesmen involved in informal gold mining operations. The Pemon complain of extortion and shakedowns by troops.

The National Guard, the information ministry – which handles media enquiries for the Venezuelan government – and the defense ministry did not respond to requests for this story.

However, Maduro’s government has in the past denied mistreatment of the Pemon. It says the Pemon, who live in southern Venezuela and northern Brazil and number about 30,000 in total, have benefited from state resources and increased autonomy.

The government has not commented on the extortion accusations, but Maduro in recent years has said that opposition leaders are involved in gold “mafias.”

Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera of the ruling Socialist Party in a March interview with Reuters blamed the violence on armed members of the Pemon tribe, without presenting evidence. He added that the incident is under investigation.

“Unfortunately, there were terrorist acts. They attacked a unit of our Bolivarian Army that was only carrying communications equipment,” said Noguera. “There were elements within the peaceful community of Kumarakapay that were armed, and the community rejects that.”

U.S.-BACKED AID CONVOYS

Opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, led the attempt to bring U.S.-backed aid convoys across Venezuela’s borders in an effort to shame Maduro for refusing to accept foreign aid despite shortages of food and basic goods.

Maduro said the aid effort was a disguised invasion by Washington. He said the Trump administration should have lifted economic and oil industry sanctions if it really wanted to help Venezuelans.

The tribal leaders of Kumarakapay were the first of the main Pemon communities in the area to openly support the aid plan.

When residents learned of the killings in Kumarakapay on February 22, a group of them beat the four members of the National Guard held hostage that morning, according to two villagers who witnessed the events.

That same day, a group of around 10 Pemon tribesmen from the village of Maurak detained 42 members of the National Guard at a small airport in the town of Santa Elena, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the border with Brazil and 75 kilometers (47 miles) south of Kumarakapay, according to one Pemon tribal leader.

They drove the troops to a small farm at the edge of the jungle and ordered them to sit on top of fire ant hills, said a second tribal leader, who also asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the tribe.

Bites by fire ants can be painful and are known to cause blisters severe enough to warrant hospital attention.

Some of the troops were tied up and beaten, one of the leaders said, noting that some Pemon members had objected to their detention and to the violence against them.

“Everything was out of control,” he said.

A second leader, who also asked not to be identified, said that during the detention villagers put hot peppers in the troops’ mouths and on their genitals.

The Pemon chieftain’s council did not respond to requests for comment.

The following day, on February 23, residents of Kumarakapay sought to block another group of military vehicles from reaching the border. Four village residents brought in General Jose Montoya, the National Guard commander for Bolivar state, to help convince the military convoys not to go to the border.

However, National Guard troops handcuffed the four Pemon, covered their faces with masks and pushed them into police vehicles, according to resident Aldemaro Perez. Montoya was detained at the same time and all five were taken to an army base called Escamoto.

“So you Pemon tribesmen think you’re tough? You’re going to die here,” Perez recalls one police officer shouting.

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

FILE PHOTO: The covered body of a dead person is seen after Venezuelan soldiers opened fire on indigenous people near the border with Brazil on Friday, according to community members, in Kumarakapay, Venezuela, February 22, 2019. REUTERS/William Urdaneta/File Photo NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Perez, 35, a community leader in Kumarakapay, did not identify any specific policemen or soldiers involved in his detention. Details of his account were confirmed to Reuters by three other detained Pemon tribesmen and a representative of civil rights group Penal Forum, who also said they were unable to identify the specific individuals or military units involved.

Noguera, the Bolivar state governor, denied the detained men were beaten in custody.

Reuters was unable to determine why the National Guard used police vehicles to transport detainees to the army base, nor why they detained Montoya – who was stripped of his post in a resolution published days later in the Official Gazette. The resolution did not say the reasons for his dismissal.

Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Montoya or determine his whereabouts.

A regional military command center operating in Bolivar state and the interior ministry, which oversees the National Police, did not respond to requests for comment.

(Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle in Pacaraima, Brazil; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Edward Tobin)

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)