AFP Caracas, Capital District, Venezuela
Feb 03, 2019, 05.57 AM
Opposition leader Juan Guaido called for more street protests as tens of thousands of his supporters rallied in Venezuela on Saturday while Socialist leader Nicolas Maduro resisted pressure to call a new presidential election.
Self-declared acting president Guaido, 35, had called Saturday's protest to ramp up the pressure on Maduro to step down.
He received a boost before it began when an air force general became the highest-ranking officer to abandon Maduro and recognize the National Assembly head as the country's true leader.
United States National Security Advisor John Bolton responded to that in a tweet calling on "all military members to follow General (Francisco) Yanez's lead."
The US recognized Guaido as Venezuela's interim president 10 days ago while four major European nations -- Britain, France, Germany and Spain -- have said they will do likewise unless Maduro calls presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.
'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 parliamentary elections slated for the end of 2020 to this year.
"They (the opposition) want to bring forward elections, let's have elections," he said in a reference to the opposition.
Maduro, making his first public appearance since claiming to have survived an assassination attempt six months ago, 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 into the country humanitarian aid that would be gathered in Colombia, Brazil and a Caribbean Island.
"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 with hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine.
Maduro refuses to let aid into the country, claiming it would precede a US-led military intervention.
"We've never been nor are a country of beggars," he told thousands of his supporters in the heart of Caracas.
"There are some people who feel like beggars to imperialism and sell their homeland for $20 million," he added, referring to the amount of food and medicine aid offered by the US.
Guaido called for a new demonstration on February 12 and said there would be yet another one related to the 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 kilometres (six miles), attracted huge crowds.
Banners at the opposition rally read: "Get out dictator" and "Maduro usurper."
At the pro-Maduro demonstration, one said: "Go to hell, shitty Yankees."
Early on Saturday, General 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 per cent 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 Venezuelan air force posted a picture of Yanez on its Twitter account tagged with the word "traitor."
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.
Guaido, who has offered amnesty to members of the military that abandon Maduro, acknowledges that he needs its support.
The challenge to Maduro is his most serious yet, with the US leading the campaign to drive him from office.
"Maduro's tyranny must end and must end now," US Vice President Mike Pence told a rally of exiled Venezuelans in Miami on Friday.
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 honour bilateral agreements if successful in ousting Maduro.
China, like Russia, has denounced outside interference in Venezuela.
Guaido told the South China Morning Post he would not disrupt the relationship with China despite his close ties to Washington.
"China's support will be very important in boosting our country's economy and future development," he said in an email interview.
China's foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said cooperation between the countries would continue "no matter how the situation changes" in Venezuela.
The US recognized Guaido as Venezuela's interim president 10 days ago while four major European nations have said they will do likewise unless Maduro calls presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.