- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 24, 2019

Venezuela’s military leaders came down squarely Thursday on the side of embattled President Nicolas Maduro, giving a boost to the socialist leader in the fight to save his job and setting the stage for a long, potentially violent standoff that carries deep geopolitical implications from Caracas to Washington.

Trump administration officials and countries around the hemisphere stood firmly behind their decision to renounce Mr. Maduro and instead recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, but the country’s military — which wields extraordinary power and traditionally has had a critical say in political disputes — rejected the U.S.-led diplomatic assault on the Maduro regime and issued thinly veiled threats against U.S. Embassy personnel in Caracas.

They also cast Mr. Guaido’s claim to be Venezuela’s true president as little more than an attempted coup and found diplomatic allies in Russia, Turkey, China and Iran, all of which publicly backed the Maduro government while warning the U.S. not to intervene.

“It’s not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems,” Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said during an address on state-run television. “It’s dialogue.”

The long-awaited declaration from military leaders sets the stage for an unprecedented political standoff in Caracas, where anger and frustration with Mr. Maduro have boiled over and led to deadly protests against the government and counterdemonstrations supporting the president.

At least 14 people have been killed in those clashes, according to the Venezuelan Education-Action Program on Human Rights.

Mr. Guaido, who made an open call for military support at Wednesday’s massive protests against the government, was largely out of view Thursday, and his whereabouts were not made public. Witnesses said the streets of Caracas were relatively quiet after a day of excitement and clashes.

Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist leader Hugo Chavez, claimed a second six-year term last week, but much of the international community and domestic political opponents denounced the election as illegitimate.

Mr. Maduro’s time in office has been marked by political repression, food shortages and crackdowns that have sparked a major refugee crisis that threatens to destabilize the region. The U.S. government joined the Organization of American States and governments across the hemisphere on Wednesday in recognizing Mr. Guaido as president and calling for Mr. Maduro to leave office peacefully.

Mr. Maduro quickly responded by breaking off diplomatic ties with the U.S. and demanded that American diplomats leave the country. On Thursday, he ordered Venezuelan diplomats posted in the U.S. to return home.

The State Department has said it would ignore Mr. Maduro’s demand and would keep its personnel in Caracas to work with a new government led by Mr. Guaido.

Making threats

Venezuelan officials on Thursday seemed to threaten U.S. officials who choose to stay.

“They say they don’t recognize Nicolas,” said Diosdado Cabello, the leader of Venezuela’s socialist party. “OK, maybe the electricity will go out in that neighborhood or the gas won’t arrive. If there are no diplomatic relations, no problems.”

In Washington, the administration showed no signs of backing down. White House National Security Adviser John R. Bolton reiterated that “all options are on the table,” including military force in Venezuela.

“We’re working really around the clock here to do what we can to strengthen the new government,” he said.

Speaking at the OAS headquarters in Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Mr. Maduro and his allies not to resort to violence or seek to arrest Mr. Guaido.

“The regime of former President Nicolas Maduro is illegitimate,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We, therefore, consider all of its declarations and actions illegitimate and invalid.

“In light of these facts, we call on Venezuelan security forces to ensure the protection of interim President Guaido’s physical integrity and his safety,” Mr. Pompeo said. “We’ve seen reports that a number of protesters were killed yesterday and that more than 100 were arrested, so I reiterate our warning about any decision by remnant elements of the Maduro regime to use violence to repress the peaceful democratic transition.”

Some regional analysts say the U.S. and its allies must be prepared to back up their tough talk with action if Mr. Maduro refuses to step down.

“If there is a murderous crackdown against demonstrators this time, these governments must be prepared to protect human life by confronting the regime’s use of violence,” Roger F. Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and ambassador to the OAS, wrote Thursday. Mr. Noriega is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Promise of aid

Analysts say the U.S. must take the lead in delivering food and humanitarian assistance. On Capitol Hill, a movement was underway to pass legislation authorizing a sweeping aid package for the interim president.

“Today on the first full day of the Guaido administration, I will work on getting Congressional support for a multilateral humanitarian aid plan so we can get food & medicine to the suffering people of Venezuela,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said in a Twitter message.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty in Venezuela has divided major world powers, with a bloc led by Russia, China and Turkey backing Mr. Maduro and another, led by the U.S. and OAS, pushing for regime change. Venezuela, which controls one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, has cultivated ties with those regimes as tensions mounted with Washington in recent years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any intervention by Washington would be dangerous.

“We consider the attempt to usurp the top power in Venezuela as going against the foundations and principles of the international law,” Mr. Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev used U.S. politics as an analogy and said the administration’s actions were equivalent to Moscow deciding to recognize House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as president.

“Let’s imagine, just for an instant, how the American people would respond, for example, to the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives declaring herself the new president against the backdrop of the budget crisis and government shutdown,” Mr. Medvedev said in a post on Facebook. “What would be the reaction from the current U.S. president, especially if this move was supported by the leadership of another country, for example, Russia?”

Russia and China, have been key lenders to Venezuela in recent years as the nation’s economy has plummeted.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Beijing opposes any intervention, military or otherwise.

“We hope that Venezuela and the United States can respect and treat each other on an equal footing and deal with their relations based on noninterference in each other’s internal affairs,” she said.

Turkey, Syria, Cuba and Iran all also issued strong declarations Thursday supporting the Maduro government and blasting the U.S.

Guy Taylor contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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