Gunfire in Venezuela: Guaido says military units back him over Maduro

Soldiers, reported to be from the National Guard, were seen on a bridge near the airport, their heavy-machine guns on an overpass and crates of bananas intermixed with belts of ammunition.

May 1, 2019 04:13
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends the end of the year ceremony with members of the Boliva

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends the end of the year ceremony with members of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces in Caracas, Venezuela December 28, 2018. Picture taken December 28, 2018.. (photo credit: MIRAFLORES PALACE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Gunfire erupted on Tuesday morning hours after Juan Guaido announced that military units backed him to begin the “final phase” of Operation Freedom to end the “usurpation” of the Maduro regime.

Guaido, who was declared president in January and has been recognized by numerous western countries, has opposed the continued rule of Nicolas Maduro who came to power in 2013 after the death of Hugo Chavez. Guaido has the backing of the National Assembly while Maduro has the backing of his own political structure, Russia, Turkey, Iran and also armed groups called Colectivos. He has been calling on them to keep order over the last month and now claims that Guaido has launched a coup. Just a day ago pro-Maduro media was claiming Guaido was making no progress. Now Guaido has crossed the rubicon.

The 35-year-old Guaido spoke while it was still dark, before six in the morning. Soon he appeared with Leopoldo Lopez, another young opposition leader, who had been released from house arrest by soldiers. Soldiers, reported to be from the National Guard, were seen on a bridge near the airport, their heavy-machine guns on an overpass and crates of bananas intermixed with belts of ammunition. Tear gas was fired in the air. By nine in the morning crowds were gathering, answering the call of Guaido to go to the streets to “recover our freedom.” Lopez called on “everyone to mobilize” to retake the people’s freedom.

Gunfire began around nine in the morning on the bridges near Carlota airport. Just south of Metrobus La Floresta station and north of the Carlota airport base. Crowds sheltered and dozens of journalists crouched behind cars. The National Guardsmen waited to return fire.

“We reject this coup movement, which aims to fill the country with violence,” said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino.

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

Tens of thousands of people were marching in Caracas in support of Guaido 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.

Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez tweeted that the government was confronting a small group of “military traitors” seeking to promote a coup.
Diosdado Cabello, head of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly, said the opposition had not been able to take over the air base and urged Maduro’s supporters to march at the presidential palace in Caracas.
Guaido, in a video posted on his Twitter account, was accompanied by men in military uniform and opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez, who has 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.
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.
He has been traveling outside the capital of Caracas more and more in recent weeks to try to put pressure on Maduro to step down.

Venezuela is an important and symbolic conflict, not only because it pits the West against Russia to some extent, but also because it is an example of an authoritarian state that was once a democracy and has been beset by deep divisions, poverty and crime. When Chavez came to power he promised a revolution and he gained influence in the region, backed by Cuba and others. 
But his revolutionary zeal became more thuggish and ended up with Maduro who has clung to power. At the same time the opposition has made mistakes, boycotting various polls and not being able to unite until more recently. Now the young faces who have led this push give a new energy to Venezuela. At the same time they have received backing from the US, Columbia and Brazil.
Guaido had been declared president in January and had left Venezuela to help deliver aid in a stunt that ended with the burning of a truck on the Columbian border on February 23. Since then it was unclear if Guaido could mobilize a renewed push. Electricity blackouts have occurred across the country and the regime has appeared to entrench, counting on support from Moscow and elsewhere.
While the regime has sought to stop social media access and block public transport, crowds gathered into the morning hours at Carlota base and appeared to force their way in. If they can take the base then aid could be delivered by plane, in theory. Many countries have recognized Guaido which ostensibly gives him the right to do as he wants with the airport. 

US Senator Marco Rubio, a passionate supporter of Guaido says that after years the suffering and waiting for freedom can end for the people of Venezuela. “Do not let them take this opportunity from you,” he Tweeted. However US support for Guaido is tinged by politics at home.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and others on the left have been critical of support for any regime change in Caracas. Elliot Abrams was appointed a US special envoy for Venezuela in January. He was supposed to lead efforts to isolate Maduro. Spain, which recently had an election, has called on the parties to avoid bloodshed in Venezuela, calling for a peaceful transition through a presidential election. Bolivia and Cuba have said a coup is underway.
Reuters contributed to this report.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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