Venezuelans march as Maduro faces fresh pressures
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro was rocked by the highest-ranking military defection from his regime yesterday, as tens of thousands marched through Caracas calling for an end to his grip on power.
A general from the Venezuelan air force announced he no longer recognised Maduro as president, adding to growing pressure on the increasingly isolated government.
The general, apparently speaking from Colombia, said 90pc of the country's armed forces "are not with the dictator, they are with the people of Venezuela". He added: "He should go. The time for democracy is now."
Juan Guaido, leader of the National Assembly and Maduro's rival, set the stage for confrontation with the armed forces by announcing that convoys of international aid, previously blocked by the regime, were en route. He told a rally in Caracas that he had arranged humanitarian support from neighbouring Colombia and Brazil and Caribbean nations, organised in co-ordination with the US.
It leaves the Venezuelan military with a tough choice - block the much-needed medicines and food, or defy their commander-in-chief and accept the deliveries.
Maduro has in recent weeks been trying to shore up Venezuela's sinking economy with cash injections, as the US tightens the noose with sanctions on the oil industry. He has tried and failed to access €1.2bn in gold from the Bank of England, and sold some gold to the UAE in return for euros in cash. But his options appeared to be narrowing as the UAE ceded to international pressure and said that they would not assist the regime with further transactions.
Today marks the deadline imposed by the EU for Maduro to call elections. If he fails to do so, Europe will tomorrow officially recognise Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate interim president - following the lead set by the US on January 23, and swiftly followed by Canada, Australia, Israel and a host of Latin American countries.
Russia, China, Turkey and Iran remain loyal to Maduro, while Mexico and Uruguay have called for dialogue.
There was new energy in the air yesterday as thousands heeded Guaido's call to create the country's "biggest ever" street protest. Music was playing, food sellers were out, and the atmosphere was festive as Venezuelans demanded change, with hope that finally the tide could be turning.
A rival protest in support of Maduro was staged in another part of Caracas. Maduro told the crowd that the armed forces were "the spinal column" of the country, and that he had every faith in them.
Maduro also proposed bringing forward elections for the opposition-held National Assembly, scheduled for 2020, to this year, as he sought to damp down demands for fresh presidential elections.