Venezuelans take to streets as uprising attempt sputters
CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuelans heeded opposition leader Juan Guaidó's call to fill streets around the nation Wednesday but security forces showed no sign of backing his cry for a widespread military uprising, instead dispersing crowds with tear gas as the political crisis threatened to deepen.
Thousands cheered Guaidó in Caracas as he rolled up his sleeves and called on Venezuelans to remain out in force and prepare for a general strike, a day after his bold attempt to spark a mass military defection by forces loyal to President Nicolas Maduro failed to tilt the balance of power.
"It's totally clear now the usurper has lost," he proclaimed, a declaration belied by events on the ground.
Across town at the Carlota air base near where Guaidó made his plea Tuesday for a revolt, intense clashes between protesters and troops loyal to Maduro made clear the standoff would drag on. There and elsewhere state security forces launched tear gas and fired rubber bullets, while bands of mostly young men armed with makeshift shields threw rocks and set a motorcycle ablaze.
"I don't want to say it was a disaster," Marilina Carillo, 54, said, standing in a crowd of people blowing horns and whistles. "But it's wasn't a success."
Opposition leaders hoped that Guaidó's risky move would stir a string of high-ranking defections and shake Maduro's grip on power. Instead, some analysts expect the embattled socialist leader to emerge even more emboldened. While the chief of Venezuela's feared intelligence agency broke ranks, most others stood steadfast.
The dramatic events could spell even more uncertainty for Venezuela, which has been rocked by three months of political upheaval after Guaidó re-energized a flagging opposition movement by declaring himself interim president, saying Maduro had usurped power.
Now the struggle has heightened geopolitical dimensions, with the United States and more than 50 other nations backing Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate president and powerful Maduro allies like Russia lending the beleaguered president military and economic support.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Wednesday that Maduro is surrounded by "scorpions in a bottle" and that key figures among his inner circle had been "outed" as dealing with the opposition.
The United States also purports that Maduro had been ready to flee, an airplane already on the tarmac, but was talked out of it by Russian advisers.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry, said such assertions were part of a "global information and psychological war against Venezuela and Caracas."
"There is no proof there was a Russian plane there," she said. "The U.S. is big on Venezuela and wants to bring this to an end but that cannot do that."
Protesters like Beatriz Pino, who took to the streets Wednesday waving flags and banging pots and pans, said they weren't entirely surprised by the military's response to Guaidó. She blamed the late Hugo Chavez with politicizing Venezuela's military. Despite the setback, she said she remained equally committed to the opposition's call for protest.
"We can't leave the streets," she said. "We've been in this for years."
As the standoff drags on, the lives of Venezuelans struggling with soaring hyperinflation rendering salaries worthless, as well as shortages of food and medicine could become even more difficult.
"We need to get out of this tragedy," said Ana Camarillo, a 46-year-old housewife.
David Smilde, a Venezuela expert, said the opposition's thus far unsuccessful attempt to trigger an uprising should provoke a round of reflection.