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Venezuela’s self-declared president tries to build power as he rallies supporters

Venezuela’s self-declared president tries to build power as he rallies supporters
Juan Guaido arrives for a gathering at Bolivar Plaza in Caracas on Friday, his first public appearance since declaring himself Venezuela's acting president two days ago, saying he was replacing troubled leader Nicolas Maduro. (Luis Robayo / AFP/Getty Images)

The Venezuelan lawmaker who declared himself acting president set about consolidating his tenuous hold on power and building support where he could find it amid the national chaos on Friday, as U.S. diplomats and their families began leaving the country.

Juan Guaido vowed to convene street protests to force President Nicolas Maduro to resign, and told cheering crowds that if he were arrested they should continue without him.

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In his first public speech since Wednesday, when he proclaimed himself Venezuela’s legitimate leader in a massive protest march in the capital, Caracas, the 35-year-old president of the National Assembly tried to capitalize on discontent with the Maduro government while making the case that a better future was within reach.

“On Jan. 23, all Venezuelans awoke from a nightmare and from thinking we were trapped,” Guaido said. “The regiment tries to plant doubts, but when hope is born, doubts don’t matter. They are mistaken if they think this movement will collapse or that we will tire. We will recover not only the Venezuela we had but also the one we will have in the future.”

But tensions between Guaido and Maduro, who won reelection in a vote widely criticized as a sham, deepened as Maduro showcased his backing from Venezuela’s top military brass hours after President Trump and much of Latin America sided with Guaido. Maduro insisted he was “not going anywhere.”

Reasons for discontent in the country are varied, with Venezuelans’ daily lives in disarray. The health system has virtually collapsed, public transport is almost nonexistent, and a crime wave has emptied streets in the capital after dark. Electricity and water services regularly break down, and food scarcities have forced thousands of Venezuelans to scavenge garbage dumps for sustenance.

In his discourse, Guaido has mixed cool defiance while offering hope for a better future amid a polarized political scene. That and his fresh face have vaulted him to a leadership position among Venezuelans longing for a way out of the crisis that has sent more than 2 million people fleeing the country in search of better lives.

On Friday, he repeated his demands that a transitional government be formed and that new, free elections be held. Banners that festooned Bolivar Plaza read “President Guaido” and “Venezuela Liberty.”

"More than liberator, I want to be a public servant for you to transform the country,” Guaido said.

He has urged nonviolent protest, though the Wednesday marches have led to some confrontations. At the start of his talk he called for a moment of silence for 26 people who have died since Wednesday in clashes with police and the national guard. According to civil society groups, 369 people have been arrested.

The United States, which agreed with findings of a rigged election, began to evacuate its embassy of “nonessential” personnel Friday in response to Maduro’s expulsion order this week. The decision was an apparent reversal of the U.S. government’s initial decision to defy Maduro’s order and retain the embassy staff. Guaido said he was encouraging U.S. diplomats to stay.

In Washington, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo announced Friday he was naming Elliott Abrams to be point man for the Venezuela campaign. Abrams, who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, was caught up in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s that exposed illicit U.S. government support for rebels trying to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua. He pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress.

Guaido thanked the dozens of countries that have recognized him as Venezuela’s legitimate president, including the United States, some members of the European Union and several Latin American nations. He said he would not permit the Maduro government to “squander Venezuelan assets abroad,” a possible reference to the Citgo refining operation in the United States that the Maduro government has loaded with increasing debt in recent years.

Guaido spoke at an event billed as a news conference that became a political rally attended by about 3,000 supporters in Bolivar Plaza in the affluent Chacao area of Caracas. Before addressing the crowd, Guaido stopped in a church adjoining the plaza for a brief prayer. Despite having waited more than 2½ hours past the scheduled start for Guaido to appear, the crowd greeted him enthusiastically.

Maduro also held a news conference Friday in which he called on his base to remain firm, attributing Guaido’s popularity to the “international media” that has made “invisible the chavista power that supports me, in the face of what I consider a coup d’etat.” Chavista is the general term for Venezuelan socialist policies named for Maduro’s late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who promoted the country’s “Bolivarian revolution.”

“I have broken relations with the government of Donald Trump, but not with the United States,” Maduro said, adding that his government would continue to sell oil to U.S. refineries, its principal destination. Russia, China, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Turkey and Mexico have said they support Maduro.

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Guaido promised to call for another nationwide march next week to keep the pressure on Maduro. He called for supporters to print versions of a new law guaranteeing amnesty to members of the armed forces who “contribute a reestablishment of the democratic and constitutional order” and deliver them to police stations and army bases on Sunday. The law was widely interpreted as a means of encouraging the armed forces to resist Maduro.

“We will return to the streets. Those who think the streets have cooled off will be disappointed,” Guaido said. “We will keep with the struggle until the usurpation ends.”

But the Maduro government has so far paid little attention to the opposition’s demonstrations. Nationwide protests in 2017 were put down with violently repressive measures, leaving 156 dead, 15,000 injured and 4,000 arrested.

Guaido said he was aware that he might be arrested to halt the movement for change, in which case he urged his supporters to continue with peaceful tactics.

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"In Miraflores [the presidential palace], they think this movement will collapse, but no one is tiring; here no one is giving up,” Guaido said.

“They may be able to cut the flower, but never will they keep spring from coming.”

The Trump administration will make the case for recognizing Guaido at a special session of the United Nations Security Council in New York on Saturday. Russia and China are likely to veto any Security Council resolution.

Mogollon is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington and another special correspondent in Caracas contributed to this report.

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