Pressure On Maduro Intensifies As Venezuela Braces For More Protests

Widespread protests were expected Wednesday in Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaidó urged supporters to take to the streets at noon and demand that sitting President Nicolás Maduro step down. Hours before the protest, President Trump called Guaidó and reinforced his support.

The demonstrations would mark a week since the 35-year-old opposition leader declared himself interim president of Venezuela. Guaidó was recently elected president of the country's National Assembly, and he says the Venezuelan constitution grants him authority to to lead the country because Maduro was re-elected last year through fraud.

The U.S. has recognized Guaidó as Venezuela's president and backed his push to take office. Trump spoke to the opposition leader and congratulated him "on his historic assumption of the presidency," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday. Guaido thanked Trump on Twitter for the phone call.

On Monday, the U.S. also imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state-run oil company, and a day later, the State Department granted Guaidó authority to take control of Venezuelan government assets held by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other U.S.-insured banks.

The U.S. is Venezuela's biggest customer for oil, and production is expected to drop if Maduro remains in power.

Maduro has refused to step down, and his government has barred Guaidó from traveling and frozen his bank accounts. Venezuela's chief prosecutor, Tarek William Saab, announced a criminal probe Tuesday into Guaidó's anti-government activities. Maduro painted Guaidó's rebellion as a U.S. attempt to steal Venezuela's oil resources, and warned that, "we won't allow a Vietnam in Latin America."

World powers have lined up on either side of the Venezuelan crisis. Some two dozen countries, including Latin American nations, Australia and Israel, have backed Guaidó. A number of Western European countries have said they will side with him if Maduro does not call new elections.

Russia and China continue to support Maduro's regime with loans and political backup at the U.N. Security Council. Private military contractors linked to Russia's government are also rumored to be in Venezuela protecting Maduro, Reuters reported, citing sources close to the contractors.

Ahead of Wednesday's demonstrations, Guaidó called on Venezuelans to step outside for a two-hour, nonviolent protest beginning at noon. He urged them write their grievances on white placards and post photos online with a hashtag that translates to "You also have reasons." He also urged the military to "cross over to our side, the side of the constitution."

So far, the vast majority of Venezuela's armed forces have not answered Guaidó's call. On Wednesday, Maduro presided over a military march and rallied rows of troops in green fatigues, invoking the liberator Simón Bolívar and former President Hugo Chávez and referring to the U.S. support of Guaidó as imperialism.

"The sun is rising," Maduro said. "January is gone. And rebellious February, anti-imperialist February is coming."

Maduro has offered to talk with the opposition, The Wall Street Journal reported. Previous talks have not yielded change.

Last week, Guaidó successfully summoned hundreds of thousands of people for protests, as NPR has reported.

The U.N. said Tuesday that 40 people are believed to have been killed during the week-long political standoff. More than half of them are believed to have been shot by security forces or pro-government forces while protesting, and one member of the National Guard was also believed to have been killed during protests. More than 850 people were thought to have been detained.

The U.S. intervention is welcome among Venezuelans who are fed up with Maduro, NPR has reported, but worries remain that any transition would be violent, as hardline pro-government troops, police and militias hold fast.

So far, Washington has only leveraged political and financial pressure on Maduro. However, in a Monday briefing, national security adviser John Bolton held a yellow notebook containing a scrawled note that read in part, "5,000 troops to Colombia."

The White House has repeatedly said that "all options are on the table" regarding Venezuela.

The State Department has warned U.S. citizens not to travel to Venezuela because of crime, civil unrest and the risk of detention. All non-emergency U.S. personnel have been ordered to leave.

NPR's Isabel Lara contributed to this report.

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