Venezuela opposition leader rejects mediation offers

AP , Friday 1 Feb 2019

Venezuelan opposition leader
File Photo: Venezuela's National Assembly head Juan Guaido. (AFP)

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said Friday he has turned down offers from the presidents of Mexico and Uruguay to negotiate with embattled Nicolas Maduro, a day before nationwide street protests called to escalate pressure on the socialist leader to step down.

In a letter to both presidents, Guaido urged them to back Venezuela's struggle, saying to remain neutral aligns them with Maduro.

"At this historical moment that our country is going through, to be neutral is to be on the side of the regime that has condemned hundreds of thousands of human beings to misery, hunger and exile _ including death,'' he said.

Guaido declared himself interim president last week before tens of thousands of cheering supporters and vowed to topple Maduro's administration, which he labeled a "dictatorship.'' His claim to the presidency is backed by the United States and some two dozen other nations.

The opposition's priority is to end Maduro's grip on power and usher in a transition by holding democratic elections, Guaido said in the letter to Uruguayan President Tabare Vazquez and Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The United States also rejects offers from Mexico, Uruguay and the Vatican to mediate a dialogue.

President Donald Trump's national security adviser John Bolton tweeted Thursday that Maduro and his top advisers should retire to "a nice beach somewhere far away from Venezuela.'' Bolton's talk turned tougher Friday in an interview with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in which he warned that it could be a beach area more like Guantanamo.

A defiant Maduro remains dug in, blaming the White House for openly backing what he calls a coup to remove him from power and exploit his country's vast oil wealth. He retains support from powerful allies, including Russia and China, but is growing increasingly isolated as more nations back Guaido.

Maduro on Friday continued a show of strength as commander-in-chief that has seen him crisscross Venezuela to oversee military exercises in recent days as he vows to defend his socialist government no matter the cost.

"We're in a historic battle,'' Maduro told several hundred troops standing in formation around armored vehicles. "We're facing the greatest political, diplomatic and economic aggression that Venezuela has confronted in 200 years.''

The military's top leadership is backing Maduro, though analysts warn that rank-and-file troops frustrated by their country's economic and humanitarian crisis may not share that unwavering loyalty.

Venezuela's opposition has called on supporters to flood the streets again Saturday in nationwide protests against Maduro, the second such mass action this week. Guaido led a peaceful demonstration Wednesday with residents stepping out of their homes and workplaces for two hours. Last week, street protests turned violent in days of unrest that killed nearly three dozen people in clashes with government security forces.

Maduro's socialist government is asking its supporters to mount their own demonstration, urging them to show their support Saturday on the 20th anniversary of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chavez.

Meanwhile, a prominent opposition lawmaker called on a group of European Union and Latin American countries to support Maduro's ouster _ without negotiations.

An "international contact group'' announced Thursday by the E.U.'s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, "should help to cease the usurpation of power by Maduro and establish a transitional government until new elections,'' said Francisco Sucre, who heads the international committee of the opposition-led National Assembly.

"There is no possible discussion here. Maduro has to leave,'' Sucre told The Associated Press in Madrid, where he is wrapping up a three-day European tour to enlist support for Guaido.

The European Parliament has called on the EU's member states to recognize Guaido as interim president. The socialist government of Spain, which has strong historic, cultural and economic ties to Venezuela, has said it will do so on Monday if Maduro doesn't call a general election by Sunday.

"Power is evaporating from Maduro's hands with the passing of the hours,'' Sucre said. "We have been contacted by diplomats across Europe who are ready to take a step forward, but they are waiting for the right moment.''

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