Venezuela opposition urges walkouts to pressure Maduro
CARACAS, Venezuela -- Opposition leader Juan Guaido is looking to ratchet up pressure on President Nicolas Maduro with walkouts across Venezuela on Wednesday, just a day after the embattled socialist administration barred Guaido from leaving the country while he is investigated for anti-government activities.
The man challenging Maduro's claim to the presidency is urging Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours beginning at noon in the first mass mobilization since he declared himself the nation's rightful leader a week ago during another round of big protests.
"Venezuela is set on change," Guaido said.
The surge in political manoeuvring has seen two dozen nations, including the United States and several big Latin American countries, back Guaido, and the Trump administration has imposed sanctions that could starve the already distressed nation of billions in oil revenue.
But Maduro is holding firm in refusing to step down. He huddled with military troops early Wednesday and has overseen military exercises in recent days while seeking to consolidate support from the armed forces.
He accused Washington of staging a coup and pressed his case directly to the American people in a short video shot in the presidential palace. President Donald Trump and "this group of extremists" have their eyes on Venezuela's vast oil reserves, said Maduro, warning that the U.S. is about to repeat a bloody chapter in its history.
"We won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America," Maduro said. "If the aim of the United States is to invade, they'll have a Vietnam worse than can be imagined."
In an interview with Russia's state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday, Maduro said he was "willing to sit down for talks with the opposition for the sake of Venezuela's peace and its future." Maduro said the talks could be held with mediation of other countries. Russia is one of the staunchest supporters of Maduro and has offered to mediate.
Maduro also accused the U.S. president of ordering a hit on him from Colombia. He said he was aware of Trump's "orders" for the Colombian government and the local mafia to kill him.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court barred Guaido from leaving the country after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced that he was opening a criminal investigation of Maduro's foe, who heads the opposition-controlled congress. Saab is a key Maduro ally and the high court is stacked with Maduro loyalists.
The court move came after U.S. national security adviser John Bolton warned that the Maduro government would face "serious consequences" if Guaido is harmed.
Guaido has thus far managed to avoid arrest and the Supreme Court did not strip him of his legislative immunity, though the new investigation could signal that Maduro's administration is moving to take a more punitive approach.
Speaking Tuesday outside the National Assembly, Guaido said he was aware of personal risks.
"I don't underestimate the threat of persecution at the moment, but here we are," he said.
The U.S. has emerged as Guaido's most powerful ally, announcing on Tuesday that it was giving him control of Venezuela's U.S. bank accounts.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Guaido has the authority to take control of any Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other U.S.-insured banks. He said the certification would "help Venezuela's legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people."
On Monday, the U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, that could potentially deprive the Maduro government of $11 billion in export revenues over the next year.
Venezuela's economy is already ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread food and medical shortages that have driven millions of people to leave the country.
Maduro called the sanctions "criminal" and vowed to challenge the U.S. in court. "With these measures, they intend to rob us," he said.
Violent street demonstrations erupted last week after Guaido declared during a huge opposition rally in Caracas that he had assumed presidential powers under the constitution and planned to hold fresh elections to end Maduro's "dictatorship."
Under Venezuela's constitution, the head of the National Assembly is empowered to take on the duties of the chief executive under a range of circumstances in which the presidency is vacated. The opposition argues Maduro's re-election last May was a sham.
The previously little-known Guaido has re-invigorated the opposition movement by pushing for three immediate goals: to end Maduro's "usurpation" of power, establish a transitional government and hold a new presidential election.
In a tweet Wednesday, Trump repeated a travel advisory from the State Department, telling U.S. citizens not go to Venezuela. Trump also said there's a "Massive protest expected today."
The U.N. human rights office says security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government protests last week -- the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years. It says more than 40 people are believed to have been killed.
Maduro's allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.
Socialist party leaders have been organizing counter-protests by thousands of Maduro supporters in different parts of the country.
Meanwhile, a rebel military officer who Maduro has accused of plotting his overthrow has been arrested after sneaking back into Venezuela amid the country's upheaval.
Sorbay Pailla said she last heard from her husband, retired National Guard Col. Oswaldo Garcia Palomo, on Sunday after he entered the country clandestinely from Colombia. She said contacts within the DGCIM military intelligence unit in Venezuela told her that he was arrested in the western state of Barinas.
The Associated Press was unable to confirm the arrest and the government has yet to comment. But Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, condemned late Tuesday what he called the "kidnapping" of Palomo.
Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia.