President Nicolás Maduro, the embattled socialist leader trying to cling on to control of Venezuela, on Saturday responded to calls for early presidential elections — by offering an early parliamentary vote instead.
Tens of thousands of protesters have gathered in the streets trying force Maduro out and replace him with Juan Guaidó, the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who declared himself the interim head of state earlier this month.
“You want elections? You want early elections? We are going to have parliamentary elections,” Maduro said at a pro-government rally in Caracas. “There is no dictatorship in Venezuela, nor will there be.”
Neither those thousands of anti-government protesters, nor the international community, seemed appeased by Maduro’s offer. Guaidó, a 35-year-old industrial engineer who has inspired the uprisings, has called on Venezuela’s military brass to join efforts to oust Maduro. And on Saturday, Guaidó gained a major ally to his movement.
A high-ranking air force general has defected to the opposition and is calling on his colleagues to officially back Guaidó. “I come here to you to state that I don’t recognize the dictatorial authority of Nicolás Maduro,” Gen. Francisco Yanez said in a video circulated online, NPR reports.
Venezuela has been embroiled in demonstrations for months after Maduro won re-election in a widely-disputed election last spring.
As Vox’s Alex Ward explains, it’s not surprising that the anti-Maduro movement has gained such traction. He’s presided over one of the most devastating economic collapses in the world; conditions inside the country have reached humanitarian crisis levels. On top of it all, Maduro is deeply unpopular, and he’s made three major moves that have turned his people against him. Ward has the timeline of the president’s power grab:
1) In October 2016, the country’s supreme court — stacked with Maduro loyalists — stripped the National Assembly of its authority to have any say over the economy.
2) Then in March 2017, the judicial branch dissolved the National Assembly altogether. After an international outcry, the court reversed its decision but still severely reduced lawmakers’ powers.
3) And in July 2017, Maduro held an election to create a new body to replace the National Assembly — one that would have the authority to rewrite the country’s constitution. Maduro’s allies won all 545 seats.
Maduro has set the parliamentary elections for 2020, but opposition leaders say his claims are bogus. And now that top military leaders — one of Maduro’s last bastions of support —are starting to leave his side, Maduro finds himself increasingly isolated.
Trump isn’t ruling out military intervention if Maduro continues to cling to power
Mounting pressure for Maduro to step down is coming both from inside Venezuela and abroad.
Over the weekend, France’s European affairs minister set a deadline for Maduro to announce a presidential election. If Maduro did not schedule one by Sunday night, then France would formally recognize Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela, Nathalie Loiseau said in a television interview.
The US has already publicly backed Guaidó, and the Trump administration is calling on Maduro to step down. Vice President Mike Pence has labeled him as “a dictator with no legitimate claim to power,” and senior administration officials are pressing for a new government to take over Venezuela. But if Maduro refuses to cede power, then military intervention is on the table, President Donald Trump said in an interview over the weekend.
“It’s an option,” Trump told Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan in a pre-taped interview set to air before the Super Bowl.
As Ward has noted previously, the Trump administration has a tendency to side with foreign dictators. But the Trump administration has taken an unusually strong interest in Maduro’s strongman reign.
For now though, that interest seems limited to ever-increasing sanctions and public criticism. Earlier in the week, national security advisor John Bolton told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that no military intervention was imminent.
“The president said all options are on the table. But our objective is a peaceful transfer of power,” Bolton said.
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