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Venezuela's Guaido Calls For Nationwide Protests To Oust Maduro


Now to Venezuela, where the struggle for power spilled into the streets of its capital, Caracas, today. In one part of town, there was this.



MARTIN: They're cheering on opposition leader Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old politician spearheading the U.S.-backed campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro. And in another part of town...



MARTIN: A defiant Maduro broke into song in front of a big crowd of his own. We're joined now from Caracas by NPR's Philip Reeves.

Philip, thanks so much for talking to us.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: Maduro sounds positively cheerful. Is that real? How is that possible given the situation he's in?

REEVES: It is remarkable considering the amount of pressure that he's under - pressure at home by the emergence of this new, young and, until recently, little-known opposition politician, pressure because the U.S. and much of the Western Hemisphere recognizes Guaido and not Maduro as head of state and pressure because the U.S. has cut off Maduro's government from a large and crucial chunk of its oil income. Yet, there he is - there Maduro is in front of a crowd of loyalists, cadres in red hats and shirts, the uniform of the ruling Socialist Party. There is dancing and saying he won't surrender and lambasting Trump, Bolton and Pompeo and the U.S. government in general as authors of an attempted coup against him.

MARTIN: What about Guaido? Can you tell us about the demonstration in support of him? What was that like? Was it big? And does it make a difference?

REEVES: Yes, I was there. It was very large - not, perhaps, as large as the crowd that turned out to see Guaido take an oath of office 10 days ago declaring himself to be the legitimate interim president, but tens of thousands of people all the same. Guaido does have to keep the momentum going if he is to oust Maduro. And, you know, I asked people about that, whether they were going to carry on or whether they felt they could carry on. And the answer I got generally was that yes, they would keep going. This is Luis (ph), an engineer who wouldn't give his full name for fear of reprisals.

LUIS: What is there to lose? If you don't have anything to eat, you don't have anything to look forward to. It comes a moment where you say, well, what the hell?

REEVES: So when Guaido got on the stage, he stood at a podium decorated with the presidential seal. I think he's looking - he's getting more presidential, and personally, I think it bears some similarity to the style and speech of President Obama. And one key thing that came out of his speech - he says he's going to try to move humanitarian aid into Venezuela to help the widespread poverty that's been caused by chronic shortages and hyperinflation and so on.

And that means he's opening up an important new frontier in the challenge to Maduro. It's testing the Maduro government's military. Will they allow this aid in? A lot of people really need it. Or will they follow Maduro's orders? And, you know, when you've got an army in which soldiers lower down the ranks are themselves hungry and poor, that is going to be a very considerable test of their loyalty.

MARTIN: And there was news today that an Air Force general has broken from the government and has recognized Guaido as president. Is that significant?

REEVES: Well, Guaido has - you know, for the last 10 days, he's been saying consistently that he wants the armed forces to come to his side. And he's been offering an amnesty, knowing that if they do that, then Maduro would certainly fall. This guy is an Air Force general at divisional level, which means he's two tiers down from the absolutely highest command. And he posted a video online recognizing Guaido as the legitimate head of state calling Maduro a dictator.

He says that 90 percent of the armed forces are against Maduro, and he encouraged others in the armed forces to follow his example. He is one of hundreds of generals, but nonetheless, this is a victory for Guaido. You know, he has been offering this amnesty. And, you know, he'll be hoping that this will be the start of a domino effect and that Maduro's military power base will evaporate eventually.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.

Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.