Maduro makes show of unity with Venezuelan military chiefs

Embattled president says armed forces united behind him as arrest warrant issued for opposition figure

Venezuela’s leadership made a show of unity with top military chiefs on Thursday and a court issued an arrest warrant for an opposition figure as the ruling socialists pushed back against US-backed attempts to oust President Nicolás Maduro.

Flanked by his defence minister and military operations chief, Mr Maduro said in a televised national address that the armed forces were “united, cohesive and subordinate to their constitutional mandate”, after opposition leader Juan Guaidó urged the military this week to join him to oust Mr Maduro.

Mr Maduro was also seeking to reject claims by the United States and the opposition that the armed forces high command was prepared to turn against him to end a political crisis fueled by years of economic chaos.

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans heeded a call from Mr Guaidó to stage street protests on Wednesday in another bid to force Mr Maduro from power but the president has held on.


Mr Guaidó, the head of the opposition-run National Assembly, is recognised as Venezuela's legitimate head of state by the United States, the European Union and others, while Mr Maduro is backed by countries including Russia, China and Cuba.

Mr Maduro’s address was a reply in part to comments by US officials who have said Venezuela’s military high command was in discussions with the supreme court and representatives of Mr Guaidó over Mr Maduro’s exit.

Elliott Abrams, the US special envoy for Venezuela, said Mr Maduro could not trust his top military leaders. "Almost everyone was involved with that, and so Maduro has to know that the high command is not truly loyal and they want a change," Mr Abrams told broadcaster VPI on Wednesday.

Arrest warrant

US national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday said Venezuelan defence minister Vladimir Padrino, along with the supreme court's chief justice and the commander of the presidential guard, had told the opposition Mr Maduro needed to leave power.

But Mr Padrino stood beside Mr Maduro, who took over from the late president Hugo Chávez in 2013, in Thursday’s address. “Do not come to buy us with a dishonest offer, as if we do not have dignity,” Mr Padrino said. “Those who have fallen and sold their souls are no longer soldiers, they cannot be with us.”

Military operations chief Remigio Ceballos also appeared in the broadcast.

Mr Guaidó invoked the constitution in January to assume the interim presidency, arguing that Mr Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate. Mr Maduro calls Mr Guaidó a US puppet seeking a coup.

A court on Thursday issued an arrest warrant for opposition politician Leopoldo López given he violated a 2017 court-imposed order to remain under house arrest, according to a statement on the supreme court's website. Mr López left his Caracas home on Tuesday to appear alongside Mr Guaidó at a rally against Mr Maduro. Later that day, he moved into the Spanish ambassador's residence in Caracas for refuge.

Mr Guaidó has suggested a general strike as the next step to pressure Mr Maduro, while US officials have said more sanctions are coming to choke off cash flow to Venezuela's government. The United States has already imposed sanctions on state-run oil company PDVSA, the Opec nation's economic lifeblood.

Russia said on Thursday it had agreed to continue talks on Venezuela with the United States, while China called for a political settlement via dialogue.

Mr Guaidó made a call for an uprising on Tuesday, through a video in which he was surrounded by dozens of soldiers he said had joined his side. Two straight days of massive street demonstrations followed, leaving hundreds injured or arrested, and four dead due to security forces’ efforts to quell protests, according to rights groups.

The military is seen as key in Venezuela’s standoff.

Amnesty promise

Representatives of the opposition had approached several key figures in the armed forces in recent months, including a high-ranking army general, according to former general Antonio Rivero and another former senior member of Venezuela's military who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr Guaidó has promised an amnesty for members of the armed forces who join his cause. In a tweet about the death of a protester at the hands of security forces on Wednesday, he said “the murderers will have to take responsibility for their crimes” and that members of the armed forces were “sworn to protect the people, not a usurper who hides while you watch them kill your brothers”.

On Wednesday, US president Donald Trump's top national security aides met in the White House and discussed a range of possible steps to squeeze Mr Maduro and give eventual economic support to Venezuela if he falls, a senior administration official said.

The talks included sanctions, diplomacy and defence options, the official said, adding there was “significant progress on defence matters”, without providing details or saying whether any decisions had been made.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has said US military action in Venezuela is possible, but that diplomatic and economic pressure are the preferred ways to oust Mr Maduro. – Reuters