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Venezuela's Opposition Leader, U.S. Embark On Risky Strategy For Military Uprising


Now to the power struggle in Venezuela where opposition leader Juan Guaido claims to be the country's legitimate president, and President Nicolas Maduro is holding onto power with the support of the armed forces. Now Guaido and his U.S. backers have embarked on a risky strategy to promote a military uprising. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Nicolas Maduro, who has led Venezuela's socialist revolution for the past six years, is deeply unpopular. He's overseen food shortages, hyperinflation and a crackdown on dissent. But he's kept the military on his side. Analysts say he provides top-ranking officers with fat paychecks and control over lucrative assets, including the state oil company.



OTIS: In a recent speech, Maduro praised the armed forces as always loyal and never traitorous. But Juan Guaido, the self-proclaimed interim president, is trying to break that support through videotaped messages to the armed forces like this one.


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Rather than a traditional coup, Guaido calls on officers to turn their backs on Maduro, keep their guns silent and allow his transitional government to take power. This week, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton issued a similar statement.


JOHN BOLTON: We also today call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to accept the peaceful, democratic and constitutional transfer of power.

OTIS: According to John Polga, a Latin America specialist at the U.S. Naval Academy, it may be just a matter of time before Maduro's support starts to crack.

JOHN POLGA: I think the first general that defects from that coalition is going to be the first in a long line of dominoes to fall.

OTIS: Still, a military coup could quickly spiral out of control. David Smilde, a sociology professor at Tulane University and an expert on Venezuela, says a coup could lead to a military government even more radical than Maduro's.

DAVID SMILDE: One of the most likely coups would be from somebody that thinks Maduro is driving the revolution off the cliff and wants to save the revolution.

OTIS: Another possibility is a split within the armed forces leading to shootouts between factions loyal to Maduro and those backing Guaido. Then there is the presence in Venezuela of Colombian guerrillas, armed mafias and drug trafficking gangs, says Amy Myers Jaffe of the Council on Foreign Relations.

AMY MYERS JAFFE: Maduro could step down. He could go to some neutral country that will take him. But it doesn't mean that all the militarized factions in the country will lay down their guns and report to the new government.

OTIS: Evan Ellis, a research professor at the U.S. Army War College, agrees.

EVAN ELLIS: I think it would very quickly become a violent criminal mess. It would become a - basically a free-for-all.

OTIS: The military's top brass has so far remained loyal to Maduro. Gaudio has offered amnesty to those who switch sides. But many officers may still fear prosecution for corruption, human rights abuses and other crimes should the opposition take power. In addition, Smilde says, many remain committed socialists and resent the calls for a coup, especially those coming out of Washington.

SMILDE: You know, one of the things that keeps the military together is ideology, the anti-imperialists revolution that they're defending. And so I think the United States pressuring in that direction is probably not the most productive.

OTIS: Venezuela's Defense Ministry did not reply to requests for comment. For NPR News, I'm John Otis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.