Venezuelan showdown moves to UN as dueling presidents dig in

Supporters of opposition leader Juan Guaido and the press gather around him as he leaves a public plaza where he spoke in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The 35-year-old lawmaker's whereabouts had been a mystery since he was symbolically sworn in Wednesday before tens of thousands of cheering supporters, promising to uphold the constitution and rid Venezuela of Maduro's dictatorship. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

By EDITH M. LEDERER and SCOTT SMITH, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Venezuela’s political showdown moved to the United Nations Saturday where a Security Council meeting called by the United States pit backers of President Nicolas Maduro against the Trump administration and supporters of the country’s self-declared interim leader Juan Guaido.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the meeting ahead of Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and other council members, which include supporters of both dueling presidents.
The session focusing on Venezuela’s crisis comes a day after Guaido vowed to remain on the streets until his country has a transitional government, while Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.
“They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming,” Guaido told supporters Friday, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.
In rival press conferences, Guaido urged his followers to stage another mass protest next week, while Maduro pushed his call for dialogue. Each man appeared ready to defend his claim to the presidency no matter the cost, with Guaido telling supporters that if he is arrested they should “stay the course” and peacefully protest
But the standoff could set the scene for more violence and has plunged troubled Venezuela into a new chapter of political turmoil that rights groups say has already left more than two dozen dead as thousands take to the street demanding Maduro step down.
Guaido’s talk with reporters in a plaza in Caracas turned into a de facto rally as thousands gathered after hearing he would speak in public for the first time since taking a symbolic oath Wednesday proclaiming himself the nation’s constitutional leader on grounds that Maduro’s re-election last year was fraudulent.
The government of President Donald Trump announced it was recognizing the 35-year-old leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly quickly after his oath, leading Maduro to say that he was breaking all diplomatic ties with the United States.
The leaders of France, Spain and Germany turned up the pressure on Maduro Saturday, saying they too would recognize Guaido unless Venezuela calls new presidential elections within eight days.
Guaido’s move is the most direct challenge to Maduro’s rule despite years of protests at home and international efforts to isolate the regime amid a growing humanitarian crisis fueled by falling oil prices and government mismanagement.
Maduro is accusing the opposition of working with the U.S. to overthrow him. Though over a dozen nations as well as the Inter-American Development Bank are recognizing Guaido as president, Maduro still has the support of the military and powerful, longtime allies like Russia and China and is vowing to defend his socialist rule.
“This is nothing more than a coup d’etat, ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States,” Maduro said Friday. “They intend to put a puppet government in Venezuela, destroy the state and take colonial control of the country.”
But he added that he was still willing to talk with the opposition even if he “had to go naked.”
Both sides attempted dialogue last year, but it fell apart as Maduro pushed forward with an early election that the country’s most popular opposition leaders were barred from running in. Many in the international community condemned that vote and now consider the National Assembly, which Maduro has stripped of its power, the only legitimate institution.
Saturday’s Security Council session came despite Russia’s objection to its focus on Venezuela, according to U.N. diplomats. It wanted the focus changed to threats to international peace and security because as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, it sees U.S. actions as an “obvious call for a coup d’etat” — which would threaten peace, the diplomats said.
Venezuela’s U.N. Mission asked for foreign minister Arreaza to be put on the speakers list and well-informed council diplomats say there is likely to be no objection.
Russia tried to block the discussion with a procedural vote, but the U.S. received the minimum nine votes needed to go ahead.
The standoff is taking place as international concern over repression by state security forces during the days of political upheaval mounts.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet’s office said Friday it has credible reports that security forces or members of pro-government armed groups have shot at least 20 people during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday and is calling for an investigation. The total figure is likely higher: The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict says 21 people were killed by gunfire in protests and looting on Wednesday and Thursday, on top of five deaths authorities confirmed Tuesday.
The Penal Forum human rights group says that 369 people have been detained since Monday.
“The international community is watching more closely than ever before, so Venezuelan security forces – and those commanding them – should know they will be held to account for any abuses,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, wrote on Twitter.
U.S. and Venezuelan diplomats are finding themselves caught in the crosshairs. On Wednesday, Maduro gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country — an order Washington said it would defy by keeping the embassy open, though it told non-essential staff to leave.
On Friday morning, a caravan of black SUVs escorted a contingent of U.S. embassy workers and their families to the Caracas airport. They were later seen checking into an American Airlines flight.
Maduro, meanwhile, has recalled all Venezuelan diplomats from the U.S. and ordered the nation’s embassy and consulates there closed. Guaido, seeking to sidestep Maduro, has urged all American and Venezuelan staff to stay in their posts.
Amid the tension, the U.S. on Friday named Elliot Abrams, a hawkish former Republican official, to handle American policy toward Venezuela.
Maduro has not shown any hint he’s ready to cede power. He called Guaido on Friday “an agent for the gringos in Venezuela,” using a sometimes derogatory term for Americans. But he also said that he would be willing to talk with U.S. President Donald Trump and the opposition.
“I’m not anti-American,” he said. “I’m anti-imperialist.”
Guaido, in his remarks earlier Friday, said he’d be willing to talk with any party willing to discuss restoring democracy, but short of that, he said there would be more protests.
“There will be people on the street,” Guaido clamored, “until we get freedom.”
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Scott Smith reported from Caracas, Venezuela.