Anti-government protesters in Venezuela were engaged in running street battles with security forces, as interim President Juan Guaidó said factions of the military were supporting his high stakes push to oust Nicolás Maduro.
In the opposition strongholds of eastern Caracas, armored troop carriers loyal to Maduro rammed into demonstrators armed with little more than rocks, sticks and Molotov cocktails. Local TV showed one of the vehicles driving over the median and crushing a protester.
Eyewitnesses said forces loyal to Guaidó had taken the Altamira overpass, which bisects the city, and thousands of demonstrators were seen swarming onto the streets amid reports of gunfire and confrontations.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said there was a coup underway, but called it “insignificant” and said it was under control.
Early Tuesday, Guaidó surprised the country by releasing a video recorded at the Carlota Air Force Base in Caracas. Surrounded by heavily armed military forces, Guaidó said the time had come to peacefully force Maduro out of office and asked his followers to surround military bases, including La Carlota.
“Our armed forces, brave soldiers, brave patriots, brave men who follow the constitution have heard our call,” he said.
Leopoldo López, a former presidential candidate and Guaidó’s political mentor, who has been jailed since 2014 — most recently under house arrest — also made an appearance in the video. Later he said he’d been freed by military loyal to Guaidó.
Guaidó and López appeared together later in the day in eastern Caracas, still surrounded by members of the Bolivarian National Guard. Guaidó called on the people to take to the streets and “resist” until Maduro steps down.
“Everyone in Venezuela, including the armed forces, are in favor of the constitution,” Guaidó said, speaking through a megaphone. “The one who is engaged in a coup is Maduro who has usurped the [presidency] at Miraflores.”
“We are going to stay here and resist and we’re asking the military to incorporate themselves into this fight for Venezuela,” he said.
Amid the chaos and confusion, the Maduro regime scrambled to downplay the apparent uprising.
Padrino López said the armed forces “remain loyal and firm in their defense of the national constitution and the legitimate authorities.” And Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said a “small group of military traitors” were being confronted in the opposition stronghold of Altamira. Maduro officials also called on the population to surround the Miraflores presidential palace to defend the embattled leader.
Guaidó had been calling for a massive march on Wednesday, May 1, as part of his months’ long push to oust Maduro, but said the plan had been moved up.
“The time is now,” he said.
In a tweet moments later, he said he had the support of the “main military units of the Armed Forces” and was “beginning the final phase of Operation Liberty.”
Guaidó has been urging the military to switch sides since January. And while more than 1,000 members of the security forces have fled the country — many into neighboring Colombia — there had been few signs of the mass defection that he’d been hoping for.
Maduro loyalist Diosdado Cabello said the Carlota military base had not fallen and that there was no mass military uprising.
“These are the same coup mongers as always,” he told state-run VTV television. “We will defend the constitution and the revolution.”
Local TV showed troops on the base scrambling into white trucks as they carried weapons, but it was unclear if they were pro-Maduro or pro-Guaidó factions.
Venezuela Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza blamed Washington and Colombia for backing the coup attempt against Maduro.
It’s unclear how much military backing Guaidó has, but some feared the division within the ranks could lead to bloodshed. Local TV said there were reports of gunfire near the Carlota base.
José Antonio Colina, a former Venezuelan military official and the president of Veppex, an advocacy group in South Florida that represents politically persecuted Venezuelans, said he was following the news closely on Tuesday morning.
“It’s been an important step,” he said. “Now we hope that this inspires a strong public response. The support of the people is needed.” Otherwise, he added, Venezuela could be facing a battle between pro- and anti-Maduro military forces.
Yddy Subero, a 35-year-old business administrator in Caracas, said she was heading to the Carlota military base to support Guaidó.
“I hope this ends without blood,” she said. “I hope that [Maduro] has a heart and leaves peacefully.”
As the day unfolded, it became less clear that Guaidó had the support of the full military, said Venezuela security expert Brian Fonseca, a former Marine and U.S. Southern Command intelligence analyst who now serves as the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
“What we saw today so far is some elements of the National Guard, some general officers from the National Guard” actually support Guaidó, Fonseca said. He estimated that the total number of forces behind Guaidó was likely only in the hundreds. “To me, the most important, powerful branch is the Army and we are not seeing the types of fractures there,” Fonseca said.
There are about 150,000 to 165,000 forces total in Venezuela’s military, but its capabilities have degraded in recent years, Fonseca said. Russia sold Venezuela much of its equipment and weaponry, including its air defense systems. But those systems have become less effective due to lack of regular maintenance and reduced spending.
Guaidó took a risk announcing the military support, Fonseca said, and if the Army does not back him it could be crippling. “If today’s movement falls flat -- what does that mean for credibility of the Guaidó movement? “
As word began to spread of the uprising, access to YouTube and other internet sites — that Venezuelans rely on to get news outside of the government-controlled media — was severely restricted, the Internet tracking organization, NetBlocks.org reported.
Colombia said it’s long, porous border with Venezuela remained calm. And while many of the border bridges have been closed since February, there were reports that people were using the unauthorized trails, or trochas, as usual. More than 3.4 million people have fled Venezuela in recent years amid a broad economic collapse.
Maduro, 57, has been in power since 2013 and claims that last year’s election — decried as fraudulent by many — gives him the right to run the country through 2025.
Guaidó — the 35-year-old president of congress — has the backing of Washington and more than 50 other nations, and many of his allies were coming to his defense on Tuesday.
Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo called for an emergency meeting of the 14-nation Lima Group to “support the return of liberty and democracy in Venezuela.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy.”
In a flurry of tweets early morning, Florida senator Marco Rubio urged Venezuelans to take the streets in support of the young politician.
“After years of suffering freedom is waiting for people of Venezuela. Do not let them take this opportunity from you,” he said. “Now is the moment to take to the streets in support of your legitimate constitutional government.”
Rubio also urged the leadership of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice in Venezuela and the National Bolivarian Armed Forced to be with the Venezuelan people and not “with the Cubans,” a reference to the Cuban government’s support of the Maduro regime.
Russia, one of Maduro’s staunchest allies, said the “radical opposition in Venezuela has again resorted to violent methods of confrontation.” The country’s foreign minister asked for negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the long-simmering dispute.
Using his Twitter account for the first time since 2017, López, the former presidential candidate and Guaidó’s political mentor, said he’d been freed by the armed forces loyal to Guaidó and he call for the armed forces to help peacefully oust Maduro.
Staff writers Kyra Gurney, Nora Gámez Torres and Sonia Osorio, McClatchy reporters Franco Ordoñez and Tara Copp, and Caracas-based freelancer Carlos Camacho contributed to this report.