US ignores Russian warning to back off in Venezuela
The embattled government of Venezuela struck back against its opponents Thursday, winning strong support from the country’s armed forces and the solid backing of Russia, which warned the United States not to intervene.
The events put Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, at the center of a Cold War-style showdown between Russia, an ally that has shored up his government with billions of dollars, and the United States, which has denounced him as a corrupt autocrat with no legiti- macy.
The Trump administration pressed its case Thursday, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on all countries in the hemisphere to reject Maduro and “align themselves with democracy,” setting up a test of wills with the Kremlin.
Only a day before, Maduro’s political nemesis, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, seemed to have the momentum. During nationwide protests against the government, he proclaimed himself the country’s rightful president, earning endorsements from President Donald Trump and several governments in the region.
But on Thursday, it was Maduro’s turn to put Guaidó on defense. In a televised news conference, the leader of Venezuela’s armed forces declared loyalty to Maduro and said the opposition’s effort to replace him amounted to an attempted coup.
In a further blow to the opposition, Russia warned the United States against meddling in Venezuela. President Vladimir Putin of Russia telephoned Maduro and “emphasized that destructive external interference is a gross violation of the fundamental norms of international law,” according to a statement on the Kremlin’s official website.
The United States ignored the admonitions, trying to rally other countries to reject what Pompeo called “Maduro’s tyranny.”
“His regime is morally bankrupt, it’s economically incompetent, and it is profoundly corrupt. It is undemocratic to the core,” Pompeo told a meeting in Washington of the 35-member Organization of American States.
The United States also offered $20 million in emergency aid to Guaidó’s side and requested an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Saturday on the Venezuela crisis.
Taken together, the events escalated the confusion and conflict over who is the rightful presi- dent of Venezuela, the oil-rich and formerly prosperous country upended by political repression and severe economic hardship under Maduro.
Maduro was sworn in for his second term this month after an election widely viewed as rigged. Guaidó argues that, as the president of the National Assembly, an oppositioncontrolled legislative body, he has the constitutional authority to assume power because Maduro had taken office illegally.
After Trump recognized Guaidó on Wednesday, an infuriated Maduro cut ties with the United States and ordered all its diplomats to leave within 72 hours. Pompeo said the United States would not comply.
But a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the embassy in Caracas, the capital, was evacuating all family members and several diplomats, keeping a core team of officers in place. How long they might stay remained unclear but the State Department said late Thursday it had “no plans to close the embassy.”
Maduro, addressing Supreme Court judges Thursday afternoon, urged the United States to heed his call to withdraw all the diplomats by this weekend.
“If there is any sense and rationality, I say to the State Department: You must follow the order,” Maduro said.
He added that Venezuela’s diplomatic missions in the United States, which include an embassy in Washington and consulates in Florida and Texas, would be shut down by Saturday.
Opposition leaders had hoped that key members of the armed forces would break ranks with Maduro after large demonstrations across the country and international pledges of support for Guaidó.
In this photo released by the Venezuelan Defense Ministry press office, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez delivers a message of support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Thursday.