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Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro Pushes Back Against U.S. Support To Unseat Him


It's been almost two weeks since Venezuela's U.S.-backed opposition leader posted this video.


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: Juan Guaido called for a military uprising.


GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: Guaido said his campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro had entered its final phase, but the uprising failed. And now, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Maduro is pushing back.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: When Guaido called his followers onto the streets of Caracas again this weekend, only a couple of thousand showed up to hear him speak.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

REEVES: They clap and chant and sing the national anthem.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Spanish).

REEVES: Yet this crowd's a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands who cheered on Guaido more than three months ago, when he launched his U.S.-backed effort to assume power as Venezuela's interim president.

GUIDO: The thing is people is afraid.

REEVES: That's a businessman called Guido who doesn't want his full name broadcast for fear of reprisals.

What are they afraid of?

GUIDO: If they got you, they put you in jail. And they torture you. People is afraid.

REEVES: As Juan Guaido loses momentum, Maduro is raising the stakes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: There's a fresh propaganda drive on state-controlled TV and the Internet blaming Guaido and oil sanctions imposed by the Trump administration for the misery so many Venezuelans are suffering, although hunger, hyperinflation and dire medical shortages began long before. Maduro's trying to seize the initiative.

PHIL GUNSON: I think he must be very pleased that he is now in the driving seat in that respect.

REEVES: Phil Gunson is a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who's based in Caracas. Despite this, he says Maduro is not a comfortable man.

GUNSON: He's presiding over a country that's collapsing economically, socially. He's very unpopular. He doesn't entirely trust anybody around him.

REEVES: So far, Maduro's refrained from arresting Guaido. However, he is going after people close to him. Guaido is president of Venezuela's national assembly. A few days ago, intelligence agents arrested the assembly's vice president. Edgar Zambrano was inside his vehicle when they got him. They used a tow truck to haul his car with him in it off to prison. As pressure grows on Juan Guaido, some among his supporters feel his allies in the White House need to do more.

GUIDO: Everything they do in favor of us is great. We cannot complain. But there will be the time of war, then they will have to come.

REEVES: That's the businessman, Guido. When he says they'll have to come, he means the U.S. military. Other Juan Guaido supporters think that's a bad idea, including Gustavo Hernandez, a geologist.

GUSTAVO HERNANDEZ: I am from the people who think that the military intervention is not the proper solution. Once you go into a military intervention, then you are in another war completely.

REEVES: Maduro's supporters also warn of conflict.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Maduro's hardcore base includes a lifelong communist called Alejandro. He wants his full name withheld for fear of reprisals. Ask him about a possible U.S. military intervention and Alejandro replies...

ALEJANDRO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "Let them come in. The thing is," he says, "how will the U.S. get out again?" Alejandro says Trump's South American allies don't actually want him to send in troops. And, he says, don't forget - Maduro has friends too.

ALEJANDRO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Including Russia and China. Another approach to solving Venezuela's political crisis is gaining traction, says Gunson of the International Crisis Group.

GUNSON: There's a convergence there around the idea that you have to sit the parties down to serious negotiations.

REEVES: Yet in Venezuela, negotiations are always difficult, says Gunson.

GUNSON: Because the two sides are entrenched. They don't trust each other.

REEVES: Trust is also running low on Venezuela's streets. Angeli is 21 and has three small kids, and she too is afraid to give her full name.

ANGELI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She sells plantain bananas at a street stall in Caracas, putting in 14-hour days to earn a couple of dollars. Angeli has no faith in either of the two men battling for control of her country.

ANGELI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: She says the only thing she cares about...

ANGELI: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: ...Are her family and figuring out how to survive day by day. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.