Tuesday morning self-declared president and opposition leader Juan Guaidó called on the military and the population to oppose the Maduro government. Only a few thousand civilians and very few soldiers heeded the call. Mike Fox reports from Caracas
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Early this morning, in what appears to be a highly orchestrated media event, the self-declared interim president of Venezuela Juan Guaido announced to the public that he was calling for an insurrection of Venezuela’s military against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
JUAN GUAIDO Now I call on the civil servants, who are a fundamental component not only for the transition but also for the reconstruction of Venezuela to recover national sovereignty. Our armed forces today—courageous soldiers, courageous patriots, courageous men who follow the constitution—have responded to our call. We have come together in the streets of Venezuela.
SHARMINI PERIES The announcement was made from a freeway where the Caracas Air Force Base is located. It was accompanied by 20 or so soldiers in uniform brandishing weapons. Now, President Maduro immediately denounced the move. Venezuela’s Defense Minister General Padrino Lopez tweeted that the military accompanying Guaido is a small group of traitors.
On to discuss the situation with us is Mike Fox. He’s on the ground in Caracas. He’s actually in Altamira, but a few minutes ago he was on location at the air force base. And in studio here we are joined by our in-house expert on Venezuela, Gregory Wilpert. He’s also our managing editor here. Welcome, Greg. Welcome, Mike.
Mike, describe what is going on on the ground. You were on site very early morning as this was being tweeted out to the general public.
MIKE FOX Absolutely. Well, outside of the Air Force base for several hours, opposition supporters have been grouping outside. We’re talking about hundreds, talking about a thousand at this point. They’ve been just outside the Air Force base. Groups with hoods been throwing rocks, trying to get in to the, you know, to the side of the Air Force base. This is now the opposite end, kind of the northeastern side of the base, just a few blocks from Altamira.
So it’s very clear that the international media has obviously been saying that, or at least it first came out, that Guaido had occupied the base. That is absolutely not true, because these people have been battling it out with the Venezuelan armed forces, which have been shooting tear gas into the crowd. There’s been a bit of a cat and mouse game when people come down to kind of the wall, and then they’re forced back.
Now, I, like I said, for the last, say, 45 minutes, I’ve been a few blocks away, and there’s been a steady stream of opposition supporters that have been walking and marching in from, at least here from eastern Caracas into Altamira, and then are headed to that, to the one location. Throughout the rest of Caracas things seem to be fairly calm, at least according to the people that I’ve been in touch with. I do know that there are people amassed outside of Miraflores, supporters of President Nicolas Maduro. So that’s kind of the latest, where the opposition supporters are, many of them, are saying this is kind of ground zero. This is it, it’s now or never. And we’re going to see what happens.
SHARMINI PERIES And, Mike, explain to us the way in which this unfolded this morning. How did you come to know about it?
MIKE FOX Well, it was a tweet, actually, that came out from Juan Guaido. I think it was a Periscope through his Twitter account. And that really lit everything on fire. And obviously that tweet, in it he called for insurrection. He had military members behind him. He had Leopoldo Lopez, who is a longtime member of the opposition who’s been under house arrest for many years for his role in the guarimbas, in which dozens of people were killed. And he was obviously with him. He was out of his house, and he was out. They were just outside of the military base. And he insinuated in his tweet that they had occupied that base. And many people thought that actually a coup had taken place because of the military orders behind him.
Now, there’s been other videos that have surfaced, one in particular just recently, in which many of those same military members–Now, this is unconfirmed, but if the video is true, many of those militaries, those soldiers that were there behind him were actually brought there by mistake. They say they were tricked by their commanding officer.
SPEAKER Yesterday, at approximately 6pm, we were told to get our ‘patriot’ uniform, to receive a decoration and news that would change our lives. That’s what they told us.
That’s what they are looking for, a confrontation of military against military, but we showed them that they can’t.
MIKE FOX There’s a lot of things we don’t know at this point. We do know that things kind of kicked off just around 6:00, just before 6:00. And since then everything has been kind of turned upside down.
SHARMINI PERIES And describe the situation on the ground, Mike. What are you seeing in terms of the number of soldiers that are there? What is actually happening at the Air Force base? What are the developments now?
MIKE FOX Yeah. So I was there roughly an hour ago, and I’m going to be headed back, because I couldn’t have my internet connection from there. It’s very hard to see the soldiers from of the inside of the base from where we were standing. And it’s hard to get close because of the tear gas that they’ve been firing. But there are obviously, you know, a number of them, dozens of soldiers inside. Now, there were a number of soldiers, or at least people wearing armed force [no audio] here at the bridge in the opposition concentration where I was this morning. I’d say about seven or eight that people obviously cheered on. We don’t–That’s not confirmed whether or not they were actually members of the armed forces. But they, they appeared–the idea was that they were kind of defecting and joining the opposition.
And on the bridge there, and on the side of the roads while I was there, there was definitely a couple thousand people. And obviously they are definitely up in arms and very excited to try and push as much as possible. Basically what they’re saying is this is the beginning of the May 1, that’s what Guaido said, also. They’ve been planning a big march for tomorrow, May 1, Workers Day, as well as Nicolas Maduro and the Chavista supporters have been obviously planning a very big march tomorrow. But this march, Guaido said, it would be the biggest in Venezuelan history. And he says this is the beginning. And so that’s why the people had amassed now, and kind of following and saying it’s now or never.
SHARMINI PERIES Early morning reports was that Guaido had taken over this Air Force base. That is quite the contrary. And what you’re reporting to us is there’s a few isolated members of the military that is accompanying Guaido, and even their allegiance is in question at the moment.
MIKE FOX That’s absolutely true. And then any international reporting that is out there that Guaido has taken the base is absolutely false. He wouldn’t have been firing tear gas on the opposition supporters that were trying to get in, and they wouldn’t have been throwing rocks at the armed forces. And so yes, I think part of this–this is my analysis–that part of this is part of a much larger plan to create a media image, right, an international image that Guaido has power, has power from the armed forces, with the hope that they can turn out opposition supporters and really knd of create a mass [inaudible] and a general opinion in the international media that Guaido has now done this uprising. But that is definitely not the case. I cannot see him from where I am, and it’s hard to see the bridge, the overpass, where he is at that moment, even from where I was located next to the base. But he has definitely not taken the military base.
SHARMINI PERIES All right. Greg, you’ve seen these kinds of efforts in the past in terms of coups against President Chavez, and so on. What is this particular incident, significant of course in terms of what is unraveling in Venezuela? What is your take on what’s happening?
GREG WILPERT Well, in some ways it’s reminiscent of what they call the ‘guarimbas.’ That is, they start out as a small uprising, small effort to call to the military to rise up. That never ends up happening. And then they manage to get some radical opposition supporters to blockade streets, which they’re doing right now with the main freeway. I’ve heard reports that they’re also blockading other neighborhoods, particularly where the opposition is strong, such as also in Merida. So this is kind of an effort to get people to to mobilize against the Maduro government, but doesn’t seem to be very successful.
I mean, I think one of the main things to note is, for example, that thousands, actually, are also gathering right now in front of the presidential palace in Miraflores, and to express their support for the government. And so far no military has–no larger contingent of the military seems to have turned, switched sides, to Guaido. And so it really looks more like an effort to provoke an international incident, perhaps even get themselves arrested, in order to get an outside intervention of some sort. That, to me, seems to be more of the strategy. And also a gradual build up than a sudden coup, which, like I said, doesn’t seem like it’s happening at the moment.
SHARMINI PERIES All right. Mike, you are headed to Miraflores right after this conversation with us. Tell us what the response of the Maduro government has been thus far.
MIKE FOX Well, obviously they have condemned this. You had the minister of defense that tweeted out very early saying that all sectors of the armed forces are very much in the hands of the authorities of the Nicolas Maduro government; that there has not been defections. And like you said, they’ve called the people to surround Miraflores. And like Greg just said, there’s been thousands there that have been hitting the streets in defense. So obviously this is an issue. It’s a very big issue. But it’s not the issue that many of the international media have been claiming, have been talking about. And it’s much–you know, as Greg said, it’s much more minor than many people thought may have occurred this morning.
SHARMINI PERIES All right. Mike, we’ll leave it there for now. But we will be looking for you throughout the day as things develop on the ground in Caracas. Let me give you the final word, Greg.
GREG WILPERT Yeah, I just want to add one other thing that’s an important new development. Just today Reuters reported that Erik Prince has unveiled a plan to hire mercenaries to overthrow Maduro. Now, this was a secret plan that Reuters just reported on this morning, so I don’t think that’s too much of a coincidence. It doesn’t seem clear whether the Trump administration would move forward with it. But also the fact that Pompeo, the Secretary of State Pompeo, National Security Adviser Bolton, and Senator Marco Rubio have all in synchronization with Guaido tweeted about this incident saying that we’re spending 100 percent behind you. It’s again another indication that this is an effort that has an international dimension, and not just something that was happening in Venezuela.
SHARMINI PERIES And just to remind folks, Erik Prince was the CEO of Blackwater. And that’s the company that carried out various atrocities and played this role in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I thank you all for joining us. And we will keep reporting throughout the day today about what’s unraveling in Venezuela. Thank you for joining us for now.