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Venezuela claims to have stopped a coup attempt, but tensions there are rising: so what exactly is going on?

The world will be watching as a series of May Day rallies take place in the country today.

An anti-government protester walks near a bus that was set on fire by opponents of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro yesterday
An anti-government protester walks near a bus that was set on fire by opponents of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro yesterday
Image: Fernando Llano/PA Images

VENEZUELA’S POLITICAL CRISIS appears to be heating up, after the country’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido claimed to have military backing to topple its elected president, Nicolas Maduro.

Tensions have mounted in the country since Guaidó declared himself interim president in January, a move backed by the United States and other major countries.

That followed years of economic downturn which has seen hyperinflation, food and medicine shortages, and power cuts across the oil-rich South American country.

Millions of Venezuelans have also left the country in recent years, and now Maduro claims to be fighting an attempted coup against him.

So what exactly is behind the crisis?

Elected government

Matters first came to a head on 23 January, when opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself acting president and said he would assume the powers of the executive branch in defiance of the elected president, Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro was sworn in to a second six-year term in office two weeks previously, but his opponents – including some neighbouring South American countries and the US – questioned the legitimacy of the vote.

During his first term, the country’s economy declined rapidly, leading many Venezuelans to blame him and the socialist government for the country’s poor fortunes.

Xinhua Headlines: Venezuelans call for dialogue as political crisis drags on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro holds a small copy of the constitution at his inauguration ceremony on January 10 Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

Within minutes of Guaido’s announcement US President Donald Trump issued a statement declaring Maduro “illegitimate” and calling the Guaido-led National Assembly “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people”.

A dozen regional countries soon followed suit, with Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Canada among those backing Guaido, although Mexico and Cuba stood firm in support of Maduro — as did the country’s powerful military.

Maduro responded by breaking off diplomatic ties with the “imperialist” US government, giving its diplomats 72 hours to leave.

He claimed Guaidó’s move was a power play by the US to oust him, saying that he was the constitutional president and would remain so.

Divided opposition

However, thousands of Venezuelans abroad — from Madrid to Lima to Santiago in Chile — welcomed Guaido’s announcement at the time.

“I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, (install) a transitional government and hold free elections,” the 35-year-old told supporters in January.

Since being elected president of the National Assembly in December, Guaido has managed to rally a divided opposition.

Maduro presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left millions in poverty as the country faces shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

Some 2.3 million people have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations, while the International Monetary Fund says inflation will hit a staggering 10,000,000% this year.

Guaido accused Maduro of being a usurper following his disputed re-election last year, with the European Union among those to dismiss the election as a fraud.

Anti-Maduro Protest in Venezuela Juan Guaido appears at a rally in Venezuela in April Source: Zuma Press/PA Images

But while some 50 nations, including Ireland, have declared support for Guaido, Maduro still has powerful backers, notably Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and Turkey.

And despite his international support, the would-be president also does not have much power to do anything in Venezuela legally.

US sanctions

The country’s declining fortunes have also been linked to its relations with the US, which have been fraught since Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez – who died in 2013 – came to power in 1999.

During his 14 years in power, Chavez hit out at former US president George Bush as “the Devil”, “a coward”, “a killer”, “a liar”, “a donkey”, “an ignoramus” and “a psychologically sick man”.

In 2017, Washington forbid US citizens and companies from buying Venezuelan public debt or stakes in state-owned energy company PDVSA, which Caracas blames for the country’s dire shortages of food and medecines.

Even after this, the country had been exporting 500,000 barrels of oil a day to US companies, which accounted for three-quarters of its liquidity by the end of last year.

Chavez, notably absent from the new election round in Venezuela Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Source: PA Images

After Maduro accused Washington of trying to foment “a fascist coup”, the US responded by imposing further sanctions on the oil company PDVSA and its US subsidiary Citgo.

The latter has refineries, pipelines and stakes in oil terminals inside the US – and given control over its accounts to Guaido to ‘safeguard’ the assets.

Donald Trump also claimed that military intervention was “an option” on 3 February, and many believe the latest developments are an attempt by the US to see a Washington-friendly leader imposed in Venezuela, although no such intervention has been forthcoming.

Later that month, tonnes of US food aid began piling up along the border with Colombia, with Maduro refusing to allow the aid into the country because he felt it was a cover for a US invasion.

May Day rallies

Despite the ongoing turmoil, Maduro appeared to have the crucial backing of Venezuela’s military and security forces, who assisted in blocking aid from entering the country.

But yesterday, Guaido appeared alongside armed, uniformed men to call on the military to abandon Maduro, who called the incident an “attempted coup”.

Guaido Juan Guaidó appears in a video with apparent military figures yesterday Source: Twitter

 The 35-year-old National Assembly leader was filmed outside the La Carlota air base, adding the shock value of featuring key opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez at his side, saying he had been released from years of house arrest by soldiers.

Later, demonstrators clashed violently with police on the streets of the Venezuelan capital Caracas, spurred by Guaido’s call.

Several armoured military vehicles ran into the crowd, injuring some of the protesters. Rioters later blocked a highway with a bus and set it on fire.

Source: Guardian News/YouTube

But amidst the rioting, there was little sign that Maduro’s grip on the military had slipped, and he claimed on Twitter that the military chiefs had assured him of their “total loyalty”.

Guaido has planned a mass protest today aimed at toppling the president for the workers’ 1 May holiday, which has heightened fears that the crisis will turn violent.

“Across all of Venezuela, we will be in the streets,” Guaido said yesterday, as he repeated calls for the armed forces to join “Operation Freedom” to overthrow Maduro.

Maduro is also due to lead a May Day rally in Caracas, and declared victory over the uprising yesterday, congratulating the armed forces for having “defeated this small group that intended to spread violence through putschist skirmishes”.

He also vowed that yesterday’s events would “not go unpunished”, claiming that prosecutors would launch criminal proceedings for crimes against the constitution.

Whether more extensive violence erupts today remains to be seen, but the world will be watching for what could yet be another step up in Venezuela’s ongoing crisis.

With additional reporting from - © AFP 2019.

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