Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó took to the streets with activist Leopoldo Lopez and a small contingent of heavily armed troops early Tuesday in a bold and risky call for the military to rise up and oust socialist leader Nicolas Maduro.
“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” said Lopez, who had been detained since 2014 for leading anti-government protests. “Everyone should come to the streets, in peace.”
Lopez said he has been freed from house arrest by members of the security forces responding to an order by Guaidó, whom the U.S. and dozens of other governments recognize as Venezuela’s rightful leader.
As he spoke on a highway overpass, troops loyal to Maduro sporadically fired tear gas from inside the adjacent Carlota air base as the crowd of a few hundred civilians, some of them brandishing Venezuelan flags, scurried for cover.
The crowd swelled to a few thousand as people sensed what could be their strongest opportunity yet to overthrow the government after months of turmoil that has seen Maduro withstand an onslaught of protests and international pressure with the support of his top military command and allies such as Russia and Cuba.
“It’s now or never,” said one of the young rebellious soldiers, his face covered in the blue bandanna preferred by the few dozen soldiers who stood alongside Guaidó and Lopez.
The dramatic events playing out in the opposition’s stronghold in wealthier eastern Caracas appeared not to have triggered a broader military revolt.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino on Twitter rejected what he called an attempt by a “subversive movement” to generate “panic and terror.” Meanwhile, socialist party chief Diosdado Cabello said most of Caracas was calm and called on government supporters to amass at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he said was a U.S.-backed coup attempt.
“We’re going to Miraflores palace to defend the revolution, to defend Nicolas and to defend the legacy of Hugo Chavez,” said Cabello in a phone call to state TV.
Later, a group of security forces on motorcycles dropped tear gas to clear the bridge, prompting an exchange of what appeared to be gunfire. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The tumultuous events started when Guaidó — who has been recognized by the U.S. and dozens of other nations as the legitimate interim president — appeared in an early morning video shot next to the air base a day before what he was promoting as a definitive putsch to oust Maduro. He was surrounded by heavily armed national guardsmen backed by a few armored vehicles.
Far from the tense events, a few dozen people gathered in the streets downtown in support of Guaidó amid conflicting reports that the city’s subway had been shut down by transit workers looking to further debilitate the government. Others said service had been interrupted by an accident.
Guaidó said troops who had taken to the streets were protecting Venezuela’s constitution. He said that in the coming hours he would release a list of top commanders supporting the uprising.
“The armed forces have taken the right decision,” said Guaidó. “With the support of the Venezuelan people and the backing of our constitution they are on the right side of history.”
As events unfolded, governments from around the world expressed a mix of support for Guaidó while reiterating calls to avoid violent confrontration.
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, in a message directed at Padrino on Twitter, said the armed forces “must protect the Constitution and the Venezuelan people.”
Meanwhile, Spain’s caretaker government urged restraint.
“We hope with all of our strength that there is no bloodshed. We support a peaceful democratic process in Venezuela. We support the immediate holding of an election for a new president,” Spanish government spokeswoman Isabel Celaá said.