Some US diplomats leaving Venezuela amid political crisis
By SCOTT SMITH and JOSHUA GOODMAN
Friday, January 25
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Some U.S. diplomats in Venezuela headed for the Caracas airport early Friday amid a political power struggle between President Nicolas Maduro and an opposition leader who has declared himself interim president.
A letter by a U.S. Embassy security officer requesting a police escort for a caravan of 10 vehicles was leaked earlier in the day and published on social media by a journalist for state-owned TV network Telesur. Its authenticity was confirmed by a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security arrangements.
A defiant Maduro called home all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and closed its embassy in Washington on Thursday, a day after ordering all U.S. diplomats out of the country by the weekend. That followed President Donald Trump’s decision to support the claim to power by opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Washington has refused to comply with Maduro’s order but has ordered its nonessential staff to leave the tumultuous country, citing security concerns. The Trump administration said Maduro’s order isn’t legal because the U.S. no longer recognizes him as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
“They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do,” Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. “You must fulfill my order from the government of Venezuela.”
The diplomats were likely to leave Caracas around midday on one of two daily flights to Miami by American Airlines, the last-remaining U.S. carrier to serve Venezuela after Delta and United Airlines pulled out in 2017 amid a political crisis that has forced millions to flee the country.
Backed by Venezuela’s military, Maduro has refused to show any hint he’s ready to cede power, setting up a potentially explosive struggle.
Guaido is expected to show up for a news conference later Friday in Caracas amid speculation he could be arrested. The 35-year-old lawmaker’s whereabouts have been a mystery since he was symbolically sworn in Wednesday before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, promising to uphold the constitution and rid Venezuela of Maduro’s dictatorship.
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Guaido told Univision he would consider granting amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.
“Amnesty is on the table,” said Guaido, who just weeks earlier was named head of the opposition-controlled congress. “Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order.”
Besides the U.S., Canada, much of Latin America and many countries in Europe threw their support behind Guaido. Trump promised to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
Maduro has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behavior by his opponents and has presided over skyrocketing inflation, a collapsing economy and widespread shortages of basic goods.
Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the U.S. to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Guaido’s declaration “an attempted coup” backed by the U.S.
Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia’s political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.
At an emergency meeting Thursday, 16 nations from the Organization of American States recognized Guaido as interim president.
Attention was focused on Venezuela’s military, a traditional arbiter of political disputes in the country, as a critical indicator of whether the opposition will succeed in setting up a new government.
Venezuela’s military brass pledged unwavering support to Maduro, delivering vows of loyalty Thursday before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.
A half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing Washington of meddling in Venezuela’s affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader’s rule.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, dismissed efforts to install a “de-facto parallel government” as tantamount to a coup.
“It’s not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems,” he said. “It’s dialogue.”
Guaido’s father, who has lived in Spain for the last 16 years, has called on the military to drop its allegiance to Maduro.
Wilmer Guaido, a taxi driver on the island of Tenerife, told private Antena 3 television Friday that Venezuela’s armed forces should be loyal to the country, but not to a specific leader.
“(Simon) Bolivar used to curse against soldiers who give their back to the people,” Guaido said, referring to Venezuela’s independence hero. “I think the military should choose the right side of history.”
Juan Guaido has said he needs the backing of three key groups: The people, the international community and the military. While Thursday’s protest drew tens of thousands to the streets and over a dozen nations in the region pledged support, the military’s backing is crucial.
Although many rank-and-file troops suffer the same hardships as countless other Venezuelans when it comes to basic needs like feeding their families, Maduro has worked to cement their support with bonuses and other special benefits.
In a video earlier this week, Guaido said the constitution requires the military to disavow Maduro after his May 2018 re-election, which was widely condemned by the international community because his main opponents were banned from running.
But there were no signs that security forces were widely heeding Guaido’s call to go easy on demonstrators.
Gunfire during the protests and looting left 21 dead between Wednesday and early Thursday in the capital of Caracas and throughout the country, according to Marco Ponce, coordinator of the nonprofit Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called for independent investigations into the violence linked to protests. Her office in Geneva said she “urged all sides to conduct immediate talks to defuse the increasingly incendiary atmosphere.”
Many Venezuelans are awaiting Guaido’s guidance on the often-beleaguered opposition’s next steps.
A virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, Guaido has reignited opposition hopes by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela’s crushing economic crisis. He escalated his campaign Wednesday by declaring the constitution gives him, as president of the congress, the authority to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.
Christine Armario reported from Bogota, Colombia. Associated Press writer Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed.
Maduro faces off with US over Venezuela rival’s power claim
By JOSHUA GOODMAN
Thursday, January 24
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans headed into uncharted political waters Thursday, with the young leader of a newly united and combative opposition claiming to hold the presidency and socialist President Nicolas Maduro digging in for a fight with the Trump administration.
Violence flared during big anti-government demonstrations across Venezuela on Wednesday, and at least seven protesters were reported killed in the escalating confrontation with Maduro, who has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behavior by the United States and many other nations in the region.
Juan Guaido, the new leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, turned up the heat by declaring himself interim president before a mass of demonstrators in Caracas. He said it is the only way to end the Maduro “dictatorship” in Venezuela, which has seen millions flee in recent years to escape sky-high inflation and food shortages.
“We know that this will have consequences,” Guaido shouted to the cheering crowd, then slipped away to an unknown location amid speculation that he would soon be arrested.
In a united and seemingly coordinated front, the U.S., Canada and some Latin American and European countries announced that they supported Guaido’s claim that the constitution makes him interim president.
But Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.
President Donald Trump promised to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” he said in a statement.
Maduro fired back by breaking diplomatic relations with the U.S., the biggest trading partner for the oil-exporting country, and ordering American diplomats to get out of the country within 72 hours. Washington said it would ignore the order.
The socialist leader, who so far has been backed by the military, as well as the government-packed courts and a constituent assembly, recalled the long history of heavy-handed U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War as he asked his allies for support.
“Don’t trust the gringos,” he thundered to a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace. “They don’t have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, the nerve and the ambition to take Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold.”
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the United States to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela.
Some Russian officials reacted with anger to the opposition protests. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the information committee at the Russian Federation Council, called Guaido’s declaration “an attempted coup” backed by the U.S.
Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms deliveries and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia’s political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.
On Thursday, attention will shift to Washington, where diplomats at the Organization of American States will hold an emergency meeting on the Venezuelan situation. The debate promises to be charged, and the National Assembly’s newly picked diplomatic envoy will be lobbying to take Venezuela’s seat from Maduro’s ambassador.
Meanwhile, many Venezuelans will be looking for Guaido to re-emerge and provide guidance on the opposition’s next steps.
The armed forces’ top command has thus far indicated it intends to stand by Maduro, with Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez writing on Twitter Wednesday that the military would never accept a leader who is “self-declared outside the law.”
Several generals, each standing behind rows of green uniformed officers, appeared on state television early Thursday to profess their loyalty to the embattled president.
“The people of Venezuela in their exercise of a free and secret vote chose citizen Nicolas Maduro Moros to be their president,” Major General Manuel Gregorio Bernal said.
The price of oil slipped for the third time in four days Wednesday, an indication that international energy markets are not overly concerned yet that the situation in Venezuela — America’s third top oil supplier and owner of Houston-based Citgo — will disrupt global crude supplies.
Tensions began ramping up on Jan. 10 as Maduro took the oath of office for a second six-year term won in an election last May that many in the region contend was not free or fair, partly because his strongest opponents were barred from running.
The 35-year-old Guaido, a virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, has reignited the hopes of Venezuela’s often beleaguered opposition by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela’s crushing economic crisis.
He escalated his campaign Wednesday by declaring that the constitution gives him, as president of the congress, the authority to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.
Raising his right hand in unison with tens of thousands of supporters, he took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers: “Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela.”
The assault on Maduro’s rule came after large crowds gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting “Get out, Maduro!” in what was the biggest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.
There were no signs that security forces heeded Guaido’s call to join the anti-Maduro movement and go easy on demonstrators. Hours after most demonstrators went home, violence broke out in Altamira, an upscale zone of Caracas and an opposition stronghold, when National Guardsmen descended on hundreds of youths, some of them with their faces covered, lingering around a plaza. Popping tear gas canisters sent hundreds running and hordes of protesters riding two and three on motorcycles fleeing in panic.
Blocks away, a small group knocked a pair of guardsmen riding tandem off their motorcycle, pelting them with coconuts as they sped down a wide avenue. Some in the group struck the two guardsmen with their hands while others ran off with their gear and set their motorcycle on fire.
Meanwhile, four demonstrators were killed by gunfire in the western city of Barinas as security forces were dispersing a crowd. Three others were killed amid unrest in the border city of San Cristobal.
Marco Ponce, a coordinator with the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a human rights monitoring group, said at least 12 had been killed overall, giving names but no details on the other cases.
Amid the showdown, all eyes are on the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela — and to which Guaido has been targeting his message.
On Monday, a few dozen national guardsmen seized a stockpile of assault rifles in a pre-dawn uprising that was quickly quelled, although residents in a nearby slum showed support for the mutineers by burning cars and stoning security forces. Disturbances flared up that night in other working-class neighborhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support, and continued into the late hours Tuesday and Wednesday as well.
Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report. Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman
As Nations Get Ready for Nuclear War, Their Governments Work to Create the Illusion of Safety
By Lawrence Wittner
Ever since the U.S. atomic bombings of Japanese cities in August 1945, a specter has haunted the world―the specter of nuclear annihilation.
The latest report from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, issued on January 24, reminds us that the prospect of nuclear catastrophe remains all too real. Citing the extraordinary danger of nuclear disaster, the editors and the distinguished panel of experts upon whom they relied reset their famous “Doomsday Clock” at two minutes to midnight.
This grim warning from the scientists is well-justified. The Trumpadministration has withdrawn the United States from the painstakingly-negotiated 2015 nuclear weapons agreement with Iran and is in the process of withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. In addition, the 2010 New Start Treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear weapons held by the United States and Russia, is scheduled to expire in 2021, thus leaving no limits on the world’s largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. According to Trump, this agreement, too, is a “bad deal,” and his hawkish national security advisor, John Bolton, has denounced it as “unilateral disarmament.”
Furthermore, while nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements crumble, a major nuclear weapons buildup is underway by all nine nuclear powers. The U.S. government alone has embarked on an extensive “modernization” of its entire nuclear weapons complex, designed to provide new, improved nuclear weapons and upgraded or new facilities for their production. The cost to U.S. taxpayers has been estimated to run somewhere between $1.2 trillion and $2 trillion.
For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin used his televised 2018 State of the Union address to laud his own nation’s advances in nuclear weaponry. Highlighting a successful test of Russia’s RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile with a payload of 15 nuclear warheads, he also boasted of developing a working laser weapon, a hypersonic missile, and a cruise missile powered by a nuclear reactor that could fly indefinitely. Putin noted that the hypersonic missile, called Kinzhal (or dagger), could maneuver while traveling at more than 10 times the speed of sound, and was “guaranteed to overcome all existing … anti-missile systems” and deliver a nuclear strike. The cruise missile, displayed on video by Putin in animated form, was shown as circumventing U.S. air defenses and heading for the California coast.
When it comes to bellicose public rhetoric, probably the most chilling has come from Trump. In the summer of 2017, angered by North Korea’s missile progress and the belligerent statements of its leaders, he warned that its future threats would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” The following year, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he bragged: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his.”
The problem that government officials have faced when engaged in this kind of missile-rattling behavior is public concern that it could lead to a disastrous nuclear war. Consequently, to soothe public anxiety about catastrophic nuclear destruction, they have argued that, paradoxically, nuclear weapons actually guarantee national security by deterring nuclear and conventional war.
But the efficacy of nuclear deterrence is far from clear. Indeed, despite their possession of nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan fought wars against one another, and, like the United States and the Soviet Union, came perilously close to sliding into a nuclear war. Furthermore, why has the U.S. government, armed (and ostensibly safe) with thousands of nuclear weapons, been so worried about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea acquiring them? Why does it need additional nuclear weapons?
Beginning in 1983, Ronald Reagan―under fierce public criticism for his nuclear buildup and disturbed that U.S. nuclear weapons could not prevent a Soviet nuclear weapons attack―initiated a nuclear safety program of a different kind: missile defense. Called the Strategic Defense Initiative (but derided by Senator Edward Kennedy as “Star Wars”), the program involved shooting down incoming nuclear missiles before they hit the United States, thus freeing Americans from any danger of nuclear destruction.
From the start, scientists doubted the technical feasibility of a missile defense system and, also, pointed out that, even if it worked to some degree, an enemy nation could overwhelm it by employing additional missiles or decoys. Nevertheless, missile defense had considerable appeal, especially among Republicans, who seized upon it as a crowd-pleasing alternative to nuclear arms control and disarmament.
The result was that, by the beginning of 2019, after more than 35 years of U.S. government development work at the cost of almost $300 billion, the United States still did not have a workable missile defense system. In numerous scripted U.S. military tests―attempts to destroy an incoming missile whose timing and trajectory were known in advance―the system failed roughly half the time.
Nevertheless, apparently because there’s no policy too flawed to abandon if it enriches military contractors and reduces public demands for nuclear disarmament, in mid-January 2019 Trump announced plans for a vast expansion of the U.S. missile defense program. According to the president, the goal was “to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States―anywhere, any time, any place.”
Even so, all is not lost. Leading Democrats―including presidential hopefuls―have demanded that Trump keep the United States within the INF Treaty and scrap plans to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Adam Smith, the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has called for “a nuclear weapons policy that reduces the number of weapons and reduces the likelihood of any sort of nuclear conflict.” Using their control of the House of Representatives, Democrats could block funding for the administration’s nuclear weapons programs.
And with enough public pressure, they might do that.
Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).