Clashes broke out between opposition supporters and Venezuela\’s armed forces in the capital Caracas on Wednesday as May Day protests got underway with opposition leader Juan Guaido attempting to rally demonstrators against President Nicolas Maduro.
National Guard troops fired teargas at stone-throwing protesters attempting to block a highway close to the air base in eastern Caracas where Guaido had tried on Tuesday to spark a military uprising against Maduro.
A second day of clashes between opposition supporters and Maduro\’s security services came as the United States said it was prepared to take military action, if necessary, to stem the crisis in the South American nation.
The US and Russia, meanwhile, accused each other of making the crisis worse, evoking Cold War confrontations of the past.
In a phone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Moscow of "destabilizing" Venezuela. Lavrov, in turn, charged that US interference was "destructive" and "in flagrant violation of international law."
Guaido, meawhile, rallied his supporters in Caracas in May Day demonstrations, urging them to stay in the streets despite the apparent failure of a military uprising the day before.
"There is nothing for workers to celebrate," Guaido — recognized by more than 50 countries as the country\’s interim president — told supporters.
"We\’re going to remain in the streets until we achieve freedom for the Venezuelan people.
"The regime will try to increase the repression, it will try to persecute me, to stage a coup d\’etat."
He said staggered industrial action would begin on Thursday, leading to a general strike.
In Tuesday\’s clashes, one person was killed and dozens injured, according to human rights monitors.
Maduro, who was leading his own Labor Day rally elsewhere in the capital, emerged on television Tuesday after a day of violent street clashes Tuesday flanked by his military and intelligence chiefs.
Maduro congratulated the armed forces for having "defeated this small group that intended to spread violence through putschist skirmishes."
Accusing Guaido of attempting to stage a coup, he vowed, "This will not go unpunished."
– \’Serious crimes\’ –
Hours after the revolt by military officers appeared to be fizzling out, Pompeo told CNN he believed Maduro was ready to flee to ally Cuba before he was dissuaded by Russia — a claim Maduro later refuted as "a joke."
Brazil said at least 25 Venezuelan troops had sought asylum at its Caracas embassy.
Pompeo said Wednesday that Washington wants a peaceful transfer of power but warned that US President Donald Trump is prepared to take military action if necessary.
"The president has been crystal clear and incredibly consistent. Military action is possible. If that\’s what\’s required, that\’s what the United States will do," Pompeo told Fox Business Network.
Tensions in Venezuela have soared since Guaido, who heads the National Assembly, invoked the constitution to declare himself the acting president January 23 on grounds that Maduro had been fraudulently re-elected last year.
– \’Living through hell\’ –
Venezuela has suffered five years of recession marked by shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine, as well as failing public services, including water, electricity and transport.
"We\’re living through hell, without water, without electricity. I believe the people in the streets will be the straw that breaks the camel\’s back," a resident of western Caracas, Evelinda Villalobos, 58, told AFP.
The United Nations says a quarter of Venezuela\’s 30 million people need humanitarian aid, 3.7 million people are malnourished while another 2.7 million have fled the country\’s economic woes.
"Yesterday we saw soldiers recognizing our interim president. We have to stay in the streets," said Patricia Requena, 40. "I\’ll keep demonstrating as long as God allows me to."
Guaido published a list on Twitter on Wednesday morning of 15 gathering points for protesters, adding the message: "We continue with greater strength than ever Venezuela.".
– \’Another sunrise\’ –
Michael Shifter, an analyst with the Inter-American Dialogue, told AFP the US approach to Venezuela was "unhelpful and often counterproductive."
"The US is right to back Guaido in his battle against Maduro," said Shifter.
"But beyond being on the right side, the administration is making it harder, not easier, to achieve a democratic transition in Venezuela."
He added that Russia had "committed fewer self-inflicted wounds than the US and seems more skillful in advancing its own interests."