Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido has made his boldest attempt yet to seize power from President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday morning, announcing an uprising alongside a group of soldiers in the capital Caracas.
His call brought protesters to the city’s La Carlota military airbase, where there were confrontations between Guaido’s military supporters and Maduro regime loyalists under a cloud of tear gas as gun shots rang through the air.
In live agency video from the ground, opposition protesters appeared to be throwing objects at military vehicles immediately before one plowed straight into the crowd, knocking a number of people down.
As the day went on, crowds swarmed onto the streets and some members of the military, national guard, and armed forces appeared to switch sides and brandished blue armbands in solidarity to the opposition.
According to Venezuela’s Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino, a military colonel was shot during clashes on the Francisco Fajardo highway. Padrino tweeted that he holds “the opposition political leadership responsible.”
52 people who were injured in the clashes have been taken to Salud Chacao Medical Center in Caracas, its president Magia Santi told CNN. Of those, Santi said 32 had been injured by rubber bullets, one by firearm, 16 were injured from trauma and three were experiencing respiratory difficulties. No injured law enforcement officers were brought to the hospital, she said.
Juan Guaido’s “final phase”
The unrest started with a dawn address, in which Guaido declared he was “beginning the final phase of Operation Freedom,” an escalation of his bid to oust Maduro, which started in January.
Guaido leads Venezuela’s National Assembly and has been recognized as the nation’s interim president by dozens of other countries. He has led months of protest against the government, but his April 30 speech marked his most successful attempt yet to involve the military in the removal of the Venezuelan leader.
Speaking alongside opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez — freed from house arrest by defecting soldiers — Guaido declared the “start of the end of the usurpation” in a video filmed outside La Carlota military airbase in Caracas early on Tuesday. He was flanked by men in military fatigues and armored vehicles.
Venezuela’s Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez called Guaido’s action a “coup” on Twitter, adding that the government is “deactivating a small number of traitorous military personnel.”
“We call on the people to remain in maximum alert so that, together with the glorious Bolivian armed forces, we defeat this attempted coup and preserve peace. We will win,” he said.
Later in the day, Guaido made his way to Plaza Altamira, the center of the city’s opposition heartland. “For many years we have talked to the armed forces and today it’s clear to us that the armed forces are with the Venezuelan people, who are not with a dictator,” Guaido told a heaving crowd of supporters, who were cheering “Yes, we can.”
Using a megaphone, the 35-year-old said the demonstration was peaceful, “in accordance with our constitution,” and it was Maduro who was carrying out a coup.
“The coup d’etat is being done at a stage by those who use paramilitaries to attack us. The soldiers are here to defend our people,” he added.
Earlier, Guaido had told CNN that Maduro had lost the support of the country’s military. “It’s great news for the entire country that the military of Venezuela’s armed forces have taken this step. They were an important part of this. This was fundamental not only for a transitioning, but to recover Venezuela’s sovereignty,” he said.
Guaido had previously called for nationwide demonstrations on May 1. On Tuesday, he said his announcement signaled the start of that protest a day early. That came after he spent the last few weeks visiting towns and cities outside Caracas, drawing large crowds in his bid to pressure Maduro to step down.
It is unclear, however, whether Guaido’s move will gain traction or how much military support he has. “The situation is under control,” Maduro’s Communications Vice Minister Isbemar Jimenez told CNN on Tuesday. “All military garrisons support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.”
Maduro said in a tweet that regional defense bodies had expressed “total loyalty.” He matched Guaido’s call for supporters, imploring the public to rally for “maximum popular mobilization.”
His vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, called for people to head to Miraflores, the presidential palace, and “defend peace.”
Guaido’s representative in the US told CNN that the opposition leader has the support of the “middle and lower ranks” of the military.
“What you have seen is only a statement from the privileged elite of the army force. We have the support of the middle and lower ranks,” diplomat Carlos Vecchio told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
He also confirmed that Guaido’s side has not had any negotiations with Maduro. “The only negotiation that we could have is just the exit of Maduro,” he said. “The day and the hour and how.”
As Guaido’s supporters massed around La Carlota airbase, the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that the American government “fully supports” the operation launched by the opposition leader.
Meanwhile, national security adviser John Bolton said Donald Trump “has been monitoring it minute-by-minute throughout the day as have his advisers.”
United States Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Maduro, urged Venezuela’s military to support Guaido on Twitter.
“This is the moment for those military officers in #Venezuela to fulfill their constitutional oath & defend the legitimate interim President (Guaido’s) in this effort to restore democracy. You can write history in the hours & days ahead,” he wrote.
Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro also tweeted his support for Guaidó and “the freedom of Venezuelans,” and Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão told press that the political standoff had become a “no turning back” moment.
“Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez are in a situation where there is no turning back. After this point, they will either be arrested or Maduro will leave,” Mourão said.
Colombia President Ivan Dunque called on Venezuelans and the military to “be on the right side of history, rejecting dictatorship and usurpation of Maduro.”
Ecuador’s Foreign Minister José Valencia also tweeted the government’s “strong support” of Guaido.
Meanwhile, Cuban and Russian officials have rejected the opposition. And Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he retains his neutral position on Venezuela.
Guaido emerged from obscurity when he was named president of the National Assembly on January 5. His arrival to the political scene has re-energized opposition to Maduro’s government, which foreign powers and domestic rivals say was returned to power in a sham election last year.
He has promised a transitional government and free elections to end the rule of the socialist Maduro regime, which has overseen the once-wealthy oil nation’s descent into economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis.
After Guaido declared himself acting president in January, Maduro’s administration repeatedly blamed the US of orchestrating a coup to remove him.