By Andreina Aponte ,Anthony Faiola and Rachelle Krygier
CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan opposition is in talks with sympathetic military and civilian officials in a bid to force out President Nicolás Maduro, self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaidó said in an interview Sunday with The Washington Post.
Backed by the United States and a host of Latin American countries, Guaidó also said the opposition will test the socialist government by bringing in food aid to ease a crippling humanitarian crisis.
Guaidó and his opposition are locked in a high-stakes play to drive Maduro from power. In Caracas, Maduro’s top brass and defense minister have sworn their allegiance to him.
The new head of Venezuela’s democratically elected National Assembly — a body stripped of its power by Maduro in 2017 but still recognized internationally — Guaidó has argued that Maduro is illegitimate and must leave power. Maduro was elected to a second six-year term last year, but the vote was widely derided as fraudulent.
Virtually unknown outside of Venezuela before this month, Guaidó, a 35-year-old industrial engineer, proclaimed himself interim president last week.
Guaidó told The Post that talks with the military were proceeding behind the scenes. He also hailed a move on Saturday by Maduro’s former military attache in Washington to switch allegiance to Guaidó.
“We have been in talks with government officials, civilian and military men,” Guaidó said. “This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them, but discreetly.”
Antonio Rivero, a Venezuelan general in exile in Miami, said he has spoken with high, middle and lower military officials who find fault with Maduro but remain fearful of a full break.
“Many soldiers are desperate,” Rivero said. “The armed forces are broken already.”
In the slum of Petare in eastern Caracas, anti-Maduro residents approached national guard stations to hand out fliers with an amnesty pledge to encourage the drab-clad guards to turn against Maduro. One guard burned the paper as they shouted, “Soldier, my friend, you’re the only one missing.”
The crowd had met early and had bought the guards baked goods for breakfast.
“We’re asking them to stop going out to the streets to repress us. We’re asking them to come out to support us,” said Manfredo Gonzalez, a social worker.
As Guaidó seeks to establish a transitional government, he said he was in the process of naming “foreign representatives.” The State Department announced Sunday that it had accepted the credentials of Carlos Vecchio, an exiled opposition leader appointed by Guaidó, as Venezuela’s representative in the United States. Guaidó said that ahead of his proclamation as president, he had met or spoken with several U.S. senators, including Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
The history of U.S. military involvement in Latin America has raised questions about whether the White House would direct a military intervention to oust Maduro. President Trump has said that “all options” are on the table, while defense officials have sought to tamp down speculation that the Pentagon could become involved.
Rubio disputed that the United States would participate in a coup. Speaking Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” he said the United States is “simply supporting the democratic institutions” in Venezuela.
“This is the U.S. supporting the people of Venezuela, who want their constitution and democracy followed,” he said. “That’s a fact.”
Administration officials, however, have openly called for Maduro’s departure. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has additionally called on the Venezuelan military to stand on the side of “democracy,” while Vice President Pence has issued a video that supports anti-Maduro street protests.
The United States and Venezuela broke diplomatic relations last week after the Trump administration recognized Guaidó, and Maduro responded with an order for U.S. diplomats to depart Caracas by Jan. 26. Maduro, however, backed off and agreed to allow minimal staff in the country for 30 days as the two sides negotiate the establishment of more limited “interest offices.”
If no deal is reached at the end of that period, diplomats would need to leave within 72 hours.
The United States last week ordered the departure of non-emergency personnel from Venezuela but has said the embassy will remain open with a skeleton crew. In an interview with CNN Turk, a Turkish news channel, broadcast on Sunday, Maduro confirmed that a small number of U.S. diplomats were still in Caracas.
“I have authorized a small group to remain, to carry out the negotiations that will take place during 30 days for the establishment of an interests office,” he said. “We do not have diplomatic and political relations with them. I broke them.”
He lashed out at European powers that have given him eight days, starting Saturday, to call new elections. If he doesn’t, they have threatened to recognize Guaidó.
“They must withdraw this ultimatum. Nobody can give us an ultimatum,” Maduro told the network.
Guaidó told The Post that the opposition was preparing to challenge the government’s authority by bringing food aid into the country, aid made possible by a $20 million pledge from the United States and offers from Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and the European Union. Maduro has largely blocked aid in the past, claiming that reports of rapidly spreading hunger and disease in Venezuela are fictions invented by his enemies.
“Humanitarian aid is the center of our policy, and we are working on the logistics,” Guaidó said. “We believe this will be a new dilemma for the regime and the armed forces. They’ll have to decide if they’re on the side of the people and want to heal the country, or if they will ignore it. I believe we’re going to achieve it. They’re going to let it in.”
He said that his challenge to Maduro is in an early, sensitive phase and that “many elements need to be solved” before he would seek new elections. He suggested it would take six to nine months to do so if Maduro steps down and the electoral system could be rapidly purged of corruption.
Guaidó credited foreign backing for the government’s restraint in dealing with him. Although he was briefly detained this month, Maduro’s government has treaded lightly; it has arrested, charged or driven into exile other opposition leaders.
Late Sunday, Guaidó called for a large-scale protest on Wednesday. He called a second protest for Saturday, the day European powers appear set to recognize him as interim leader.
The growing foreign recognition of Guaidó has placed practical burdens on his fledgling transitional government, including how to pay for embassy rents and staffing in countries where he is viewed as Venezuela’s emergency leader. The opposition has said Guaidó is partly counting on Venezuelan assets frozen by the United States, which the Trump administration has pledged to put at his disposal to carry out diplomacy and governance.
Guaidó said the transitional government seeks to take control of Citgo, the U.S. oil company wholly owned by the Venezuelan state via U.S. subsidiaries, but suggested it might take time. Influential Venezuelan exiles were calling on the Trump administration to take steps that could secure Citgo as a source of revenue for Guaidó’s transitional government.
“Nothing will signal Mr. Maduro more pointedly than the loss of control over foreign assets,” said Pedro Burelli, a former member of the board of directors of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, which owns Citgo. “Other than liquid assets owned by an array of public entities, control of Citgo would be a game changer,” he said.
Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro and Krygier from Miami. Dan Lamothe in Washington contributed to this report.