Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Bloody clashes in Caracas, more protests expected today (May 1, 2019)

Venezuela's protracted leadership crisis descended into physical confrontations between government loyal armed-forces and anti-government protesters, backed by rebellious security forces yesterday. Ultimately, as of yesterday evening, neither was able to declare victory. Though both sides insisted they have military backing, there was no mass military defection yesterday. At least one person died in clashes yesterday, and dozens were wounded by rubber bullets, tear gas and live ammunition around the country.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó -- who declared himself interim president in January -- launched the day with a dawn video shot at a Caracas military base, calling for supporters to take to the streets in a peaceful revolution to support military factions willing to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro -- Operación Libertad. Yesterday evening he urged citizens to take to the streets today, May 1, for a mass demonstration against Maduro. (Efecto Cocuyo)

Maduro was silent throughout most of yesterday. But in a televised evening address he qualified Guaidó's move as a "deceptive coup," and that the armed forces with Guaidó had been tricked into appearing in the video. Surrounded by the country's military and political elite, Maduro promised to punish coup plotters. Maduro also called for his supporters to stage “a large, millions-strong march of the working class” today. (Efecto Cocuyo)

Efecto Cocuyo reports that Operación Libertad was not just an opposition plot. It was reportedly planned with the U.S., the Sebin intelligence agency, Supreme Court president  Maikel Moreno, and some high level generals. The idea was for Moreno to pave the way for Maduro's ouster with a judicial decree. The uprising was planned for May 2. Guaidó appears to have jumped the gun, possibly because of plans to arrest him. And the support he expected did not materialize. (Washington Post) And military commanders appear to have backed down, leaving Guaidó unsupported, said Efecto Cocuyo editor Luz Mely Reyes on Twitter yesterday. Other sources, say Guaidó did not receive U.S. planning support or resources for yesterday's move. (Guardian)

An alleged letter from Manuel Ricardo Cristopher Figuera, the feared SEBIN intelligence agency, circulated yesterday, saying it's time to "rebuild the country," reports the Associated Press. He lamented that corruption has become so rampant that "many high-ranking public servants practice it like a sport."

U.S. statements yesterday appear to back the report of a broad plan to overthrow Maduro. John Bolton, the White House national security adviser, said top Maduro officials had committed to transitioning power to Guaidó. He named Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, Moreno, and Rafael Hernández Dala, the commander of Mr. Maduro’s presidential guard. He reiterated calls throughout the day for these officials to support Guaidó, an unsuccessful ploy to force their hand. He tweeted: "Your time is up. This is your last chance. Accept interim president Guaidó’s amnesty, protect the Constitution, and remove Maduro, and we will take you off our sanctions list. Stay with Maduro, and go down with the ship."

But Padrino spoke on television yesterday afternoon, also flanked by soldiers, and called Guaidó's move “an attempt at a coup, without a doubt, at a mediocre level.”

The U.S. energetically backed Guaidó yesterday, and high level officials claimed Maduro and senior leaders were prepared to fly to Cuba yesterday but remained in the country in response to Russian pressure. In his address yesterday evening, Maduro strenuously denied a plan to flee. U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to impose a “full and complete embargo” and more economic sanctions on Cuba if Maduro does not back down. He accused Cuban "Troops and Militia" of conducting military operations in the country to cause "death and destruction to the Constitution of Venezuela."

Violent clashes were reported in five states yesterday, featuring tear gas, rubber bullets, and reports of live ammunition. Rather than a massive protest movement, the day devolved into brutal street battles, reports the Miami HeraldProvea reported at least 60 wounded in Caracas, and the Observatorio de Conflictividad Social tallied 109 around the country. At least 25 people were detained Tuesday, according to Foro Penal. (Photos at New York Times)

The focal point was in the environs of the La Carlota military base, on the Francisco Fajardo highway. There at least 20 members of the Bolivarian National Guard switched to Guaidó's side and identified themselves with a blue armband. They were supported by hundreds of protesters. But they were ultimately repelled by Maduro-loyal armed forces and armed paramilitary groups. (Efecto Cocuyo) Videos show armored vehicles driving into a crowd of demonstrators, and then being set on fire. (Washington Post)

Among the many surprises yesterday, was opposition leader Leopoldo López, who appeared in Guaidó's pre-dawn video. López is one of the opposition's most prominent voices, but has been sidelined by prison stints since 2014. Police and intelligence agents apparently cooperated to break him out of house arrest and deactivated his electronic ankle monitor. He was "pardoned" by Guaidó, said supporters. Efecto Cocuyo reports that he cut off his own ankle monitor with pliers. Yesterday López was sheltered in the Chilean embassy, with his family, and later the Spanish embassy.

As of yesterday evening, Guaidó's whereabouts remained unknown.

The gambit was extremely risky say experts. "If Maduro can successfully put down the rebellion, it will be a strong signal that he still enjoys a high degree of military support, which in turn will probably deflate the opposition," Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow told the Miami Herald. The Wall Street Journal quotes analysts who said the ouster attempt appeared disorganized and could backfire and result in greater repression.

Nonetheless, Maduro also appeared weak yesterday -- he remained silent for most of the day.

Throughout the day yesterday Netblocks reported that access to social media and news sites was increasingly disrupted, but reestablished just before Maduro's evening address.

Dozens of Venezuelan military defectors who are in Colombia gathered at the Cucutá border crossing, but dissipated when no orders came from Caracas. Colombia reported that the border in general remained calm, though migrant flows through unauthorized crossings continued.

It's hard to imagine that there are still readers who have not been closely following the whole crisis since January -- but recaps are always welcome. Here's the New York Times'.

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