Opposition activists display a Venezuelan flag as they pour to the streets to back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's calls for early elections, in Caracas on February 2, 2019.
AFP Photo/Federico PARRA
Venezuela's Guaido pressures Maduro over humanitarian aid
Maria Isabel Sanchez (Agence France-Presse) - February 4, 2019 - 1:19am

Caracas - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido was set yesterday to announce a date for the arrival of humanitarian aid to the crisis-wracked country -- a path President Nicolas Maduro believes will lead to a US-led military intervention.

The clock, meanwhile, was ticking on a midnight deadline set by seven European countries demanding that Maduro call presidential elections or see them recognize Guaido, head of the National Assembly, as acting president.

And in Washington, US President Donald Trump warned that a US military intervention remains "an option" in dealing with the crisis in oil-rich Venezuela.

Tens of thousands of people turned out Saturday for competing shows of support for Guaido, who stunned the world 10 days ago by declaring himself "acting president," and Maduro, who was sworn in January 10 to a disputed second six year term.

During the protest, Guaido announced the installation of collection centers for medicine and food in neighboring Colombia and Brazil.

At the opposition leader's request, Washington was already readying "and transporting humanitarian aid" for Venezuela, US National Security Advisory John Bolton said on Twitter.

The US recognized Guaido as Venezuela's interim president on January 23 while seven European nations, including Britain, France, Germany and Spain, have said they will do likewise unless Maduro calls presidential elections by midnight on yesterday.

Austria was the latest to join the group. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz announced the decision to join the ultimatum in a tweet on yesterday.

France warned Maduro of the approaching deadline and that it was preparing to recognize Guaido.

"The ultimatum ends tonight," France's European affairs minister Natalie Loiseau told French media on yesterday.

"If between now and this evening Mr Maduro does not commit to organizing presidential elections, we will consider that Mr Guaido is legitimate to organize them in his place," Loiseau added.

- 'Let's have elections' -

Speaking at a pro-regime demonstration marking 20 years since his predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power, Maduro ignored those demands and instead reiterated his call to bring forward legislative elections slated for the end of 2020 to this year.

"They want to bring forward elections, let's have elections," he said.

Loiseau, the French minister, dismissed Maduro's threat to hold early legislative elections as "a farce, a tragic farce."

Maduro, making his first appearance at a rally since a military parade in August when he claimed to have been targeted in an attempted assassination, accused Guaido of being a US "puppet" in a coup d'etat attempt.

The National Assembly is the only one of Venezuela's five government branches controlled by the opposition.

Guaido had earlier urged the armed forces to allow humanitarian aid from abroad into the country.

"You, soldier... have the decision in your hands" to allow it in or not, said Guaido.

Under Maduro's stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has lurched into an economic crisis that has left the country suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.

But he refuses to let aid into Venezuela. At his rally on Saturday, he called the opposition "imperialist beggars," claiming the US pledge to deliver $20 million in aid would precede military intervention.

- 'Decisive' -

Guaido also called for a new demonstration on February 12, and another protest to push for the entry of humanitarian aid.

Speaking at the European Union's headquarters in the east of the capital, he said this month "should be decisive."

The rival Caracas rallies, separated by 10 kilometers (six miles), attracted huge crowds.

Carlos Morales, a 62-year-old who voted for Chavez in 1998 but now says socialism only brings "misery," attended a pro-Guaido rally with his wife.

"This is the leader that all Venezuelans hoped for, a new leader, young, who is not contaminated," he added.

At the pro-Maduro demonstration, Virginia Rondon, 69, hummed songs that glorified Chavez, and reminisced about his socialist revolution, saying: "I never experienced anything more beautiful in all my years."

Others denounced the specter of US intervention and called on the United Nations to halt "Trump's war."

In a boost for Guaido, an Air Force general Saturday became the highest ranking military officer to back him. General Francisco Yanez said in a social media video that he disavowed Maduro's "dictatorial" authority and recognized Guaido as the acting president.

The air force high command strategic planning director said "90 percent of the armed forces don't support the dictator."

His defection is "a hard blow" to Maduro, said Rocio San Miguel, an expert on the Venezuelan military.

The military and security forces have so far been Maduro's main pillar of support, but there have been signs of unrest in the ranks.

On January 21, a group of 27 soldiers rose up against Maduro in Caracas, although that was quickly suppressed.

It helped spark a week of protests in which 40 people were killed in clashes with security forces, with hundreds more arrested.

- International pressure -

The challenge to Maduro is his most serious yet, with the United States leading the campaign to drive him from office.

European and Latin American states have formed a "Contact Group" with a 90-day deadline to try to resolve the crisis, and will meet in Uruguay capital Montevideo next Thursday, the EU said.

Guaido moved to expand his international support by reassuring China -- Venezuela's main creditor and a long-time ally of the socialist regime -- that he would honor bilateral agreements if successful in ousting Maduro.

JUAN GUAIDO
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