By Diego Oré
LECHERIA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s administration has reached its final stage and there will soon be a change in government, opposition leader Juan Guaido said, adding that his allies have spoken with high-ranking military members about changing sides.
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Guaido said Maduro had lost the ability to “finance political blackmail” to retain power thanks to pressure brought by foreign governments who have recognised him as the South American country’s rightful leader in the midst of a hyperinflationary economic collapse.
“They are isolated, alone, they are falling apart day by day,” Guaido, the president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, said in Lecheria, a city in northeastern Anzoategui state, where he held several rallies with supporters over the weekend.
“The citizens do not like them, they reject them, they hate them, because that is what they have received from them: hate.”
Venezuela plunged into a deep political crisis in January, when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro’s May 2018 re-election was illegitimate. He has been recognised by most Western countries, including the United States, as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
Maduro, a socialist, says Guaido is a puppet of the United States and is attempting to lead a coup against him to wrest control of the OPEC nation’s oil reserves, the largest in the world. He retains control of state functions and the loyalty of the military top brass.
But Guaido said that hold was slipping thanks in part to pressure from abroad. The United States slapped sanctions on state oil company PDVSA in January, and on Friday sanctioned several state-run banks in Venezuela. Guaido has also taken control of U.S. refiner Citgo, a PDVSA subsidiary and the country’s most important overseas asset.
“The diplomatic pressure has worked, the economic pressure and the pressure on assets have worked,” Guaido said.
Shortly after assuming the interim presidency, Guaido offered amnesty to members of the military who took his side. While hundreds have deserted, with many fleeing to neighbouring Colombia, the top brass has stood by Maduro’s side.
Guaido estimated that between 80-85 percent of military members were “convinced of the need for a change in Venezuela,” and that his team has been meeting with higher-ranking members.
“What’s missing? That the leadership, the high command of the armed forces, take the side of the constitution,” he said.
The 35-year-old engineer, who had a low profile before assuming the presidency of the National Assembly this year, said he was prepared for more members of his team to be detained after his chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was arrested on Thursday under accusations of terrorism.
Venezuela’s Supreme Court has initiated an investigation of Guaido on the grounds that he had helped foreign countries interfere in internal matters. During a prolonged blackout this month, the chief prosecutor has asked that he be probed for alleged involvement in “sabotage” of the country’s electrical system.
Guaido said Maduro’s aim was “to generate fear.”
“The risk of participating in politics in Venezuela is your life, your freedom, and the persecution of those closest to you,” Guaido said.
He added that his team is evaluating “all the options” to possibly make a payment of some $72 million on PDVSA bonds that come due in April. The bonds have shares in Citgo as collateral, and a failure to make payment could allow creditors to seize part of the company.
Guaido said his team has also been in touch with companies whose Venezuelan assets were expropriated by the late former President Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, about returning to the country should Maduro leave power.
(Reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Robert Birsel)