Trump Administration Urges Venezuelans to Back Opposition Leader

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration urged Venezuelans to turn out against President Nicolas Maduro and rally around opposition leader Juan Guaido in a video released on the eve of national opposition protests aimed at overthrowing the Maduro regime.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called for the country’s people to “make your voices heard” against the Venezuelan leader, whom he called a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power.” The Pence video, posted Tuesday morning on social media, begins with the greeting, “Hola, I’m Mike Pence” and concludes with “Vayan con Dios!” or “Go with God.”

The video from the second-ranking official in the U.S. government provides powerful public backing for efforts to oust the Venezuelan leader, though Pence is not well known in the country.

In the message, delivered mostly in English with Spanish subtitles, Pence calls Guaido, the newly sworn-in head of the National Assembly, “courageous” and says the assembly is “the last vestige of democracy in your country.”

“As you make your voices heard tomorrow, on behalf of the American people, we say to all the good people of Venezuela, ‘Estamos con ustedes,’ we are with you.” While Pence says he is delivering the message on behalf of President Donald Trump and the American people, the U.S. president does not participate in the video.

The video’s release comes a day before nationwide protests called for by Guaido to rally an opposition demoralized by the Maduro government’s oppressive tactics and the nation’s shattered economy. On Monday, rebel national guardsmen were detained in Caracas and accused of stealing weapons, prompting spontaneous protests in support of the officers in a working class neighborhood of the Venezuelan capital about 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the presidential palace.

The more assertive U.S. message risks helping Maduro rally support around the idea that American “Yankees” are looking to back a coup against his government. But even pointing to a checkered history of U.S. involvement in Latin American political affairs has worn thin for many Venezuelans and opponents of Maduro throughout the region.

The U.S. has been ramping up sanctions targeting Maduro’s government. Earlier this month the Treasury Department sanctioned Venezuela’s TV billionaire Raul Gorrin, and six of his close associates, for allegedly violating the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and money-laundering. Last year the U.S. sanctioned Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, as well as the country’s vice president and defense minister.

Before the opposition took control of the assembly, Maduro effectively controlled all the levers of government in a nation with one of the world’s biggest oil reserves. This week the country’s Supreme Court nullified all recent action by the assembly in an attempt to further discredit the institution, which had already been stripped of nearly all of its powers in 2017.

Maduro, who took over for the late Hugo Chavez in 2013, began his contested six-year term on Jan. 10.

Guaido wants the military to drop its support for Maduro, form a transition government and call for elections. Guaido and his supporters say Maduro’s new term is illegitimate; about 60 countries concluded the election was fraudulent.

‘Sham’ Election

Throughout Trump’s presidency, Pence has led the administration’s efforts to rally pressure against Maduro, including through repeated dialogue with other countries’ leaders and visits to the region. In recent days has stepped up his advocacy.

Pence on Jan. 10 called Maduro’s inauguration a “sham” and said the U.S. did not recognize the election results. Three days later, Pence said the U.S. “strongly” supported Guaido’s posture.

“It is the right of the Venezuelan people to elect their leaders free from all coercion and the United States will continue to press for a full restoration of democracy,” Pence said. The U.S. vice president called Guaido on Jan. 15 to express his support, according to a readout of the call.

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