Tense standoff in Venezuela

International pressure increases on Maduro to step down

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a military exercise in in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday. — AFP

CARACAS —Tens of thousands of protesters poured onto the streets of Caracas on Saturday to back opposition leader Juan Guaido’s calls for early elections as international pressure increased on President Nicolas Maduro to step down.

Major European countries have set a Sunday deadline for Maduro to call snap presidential elections. Failing that, they will join the United States in recognizing National Assembly speaker Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.

“Maduro’s tyranny must end and must end now,” US Vice President Mike Pence told a rally of exiled Venezuelans in Miami on the eve of the protest.

Guaido’s call for a massive show of popular support coincides with a huge pro-Maduro demonstration.

The ruling Socialist party is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s deceased predecessor, on Saturday.

The “clear goal” of the march was “to accompany the ultimatum given by members of the European Union,” Guaido said ahead of the march, which will begin outside the EU offices in eastern Caracas. “We are going to stage the biggest march in the history of Venezuela and our continent,” he added.

The rival marches took place in different districts of a tense Venezuelan capital. Maduro’s supporters concentrated in Plaza Bolivar in the heart of Caracas, 10 km from the EU offices.

Clashes last week around the country left some 40 people dead, according to the United Nations.

Chavez, the army officer whose oil-fueled spending raised millions of Venezuelans out of poverty, assumed office as Venezuela’s president Feb. 2, 1999 at the head of a socialist movement.

His hand-picked successor, Maduro, has presided over the oil-rich country’s economic collapse and is widely denounced as a dictator for ruthlessly cracking down on dissent amid chronic shortages of food and medicines.

Guaido, 35, is trying to force the socialist leader from power so he can set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections.

The United States and a dozen Latin American countries rapidly recognized Guaido after he declared himself acting president in a Jan. 23 speech, posing a direct challenge to Maduro’s authority.

European Parliament lawmakers recognized Guaido on Thursday as the acting head of state.

And four major European powers — Britain, France, Germany and Spain — have said they will do so if Maduro fails to call presidential elections by midnight on Sunday.

The international heave against Maduro’s leftist regime came after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy including secret talks in Washington between Guaido and US officials.

“Nicolas Maduro will do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America,” Pence warned on Friday. — AFP