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Venezuela's Power Struggle Is Expected To Become More Intense


Here's how the power struggle in Venezuela looks this week. An opposition leader, who was declared interim president, plans a week of mass protests. The United States is backing his campaign to replace the longtime president Nicolas Maduro. NPR's Philip Reeves says both sides are courting Venezuela's security forces.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: No president in Venezuela can keep power without the support of the armed forces. Nicolas Maduro knows that. So far, his generals appear loyal. Maduro's working to ensure it stays that way...



REEVES: ...By rallying his troops in person. Maduro went to a military base yesterday west of Caracas. His forces paraded their Russian-made arms and fired some tank shells into a hillside just for show.


MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIERS: (Chanting in Spanish).

REEVES: "Do you support a coup?" Maduro asks them. "No, president," the soldiers reply. The coup Maduro has in mind is one that he says is masterminded by the United States. Last week, opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself Venezuela's interim president. The U.S. and much of the Western Hemisphere at once recognized him, arguing that Maduro's presidency is illegitimate because he rigged his re-election. Then everyone waited to see if Maduro would fall. He's still there. A duel for power is underway focusing on Venezuela's military.


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: Guaido is taking the fight to the streets by holding rallies with a message for the armed forces. "Abandon Maduro, and we'll offer you amnesty." Venezuela's National Assembly, which Guaido heads, passed a law laying out how this works. His supporters yesterday went around the streets handing out copies of this law to soldiers and police. People posted videos of them on social media. Though it's unconfirmed if they're authentic, several videos appear to show national guardsmen accepting the pieces of paper and setting fire to them. Yet Guaido's supporters believe Maduro's military support is fracturing.

MARIA JIMENEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

REEVES: "In the lower ranks," says opposition activist Maria Jimenez. Guaido's had one success. Venezuela's defense attache in Washington is now on his side. Guaido is also targeting civil servants and the judiciary, offering them possible amnesty, too. Judges in Maduro's Venezuela are particularly important, says Alfredo Romero.

ALFREDO ROMERO: Imagine that the judiciary are like soldiers of the regime and, actually, is being used - the judiciary system - as a weapon for political persecution.

REEVES: Romero knows Venezuela's judiciary well. He's director of the human rights group Foro Penal in Venezuela. Romero says he spends a lot of time in front of judges trying to persuade them to release detainees. His organization says the security forces detained more than 800 people last week mostly in poor areas. Romero believes as Venezuela's political crisis unfolds, its judiciary is playing a waiting game.

ROMERO: There is not a possibility of Maduro leaving power. They will keep the way they are.

REEVES: However, says Romero...

ROMERO: If there is a risk of Maduro leaving power and a race for them to also lose power, they will think about ways to exit.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSK'S "THE REVERIE") 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.