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Venezuelan President Maduro Faces Intensified Pressure To Step Down

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For the leader of Venezuela's opposition, time is growing short. Juan Guaido says he is the interim president of Venezuela. An opposition-led legislature says Guaido is to replace Nicolas Maduro, who kept power in a disputed election. President Maduro, though, has shown no sign of stepping down or allowing a new election. And instead, the chief justice of Venezuela's Supreme Court, who is aligned with Maduro, has begun what he calls a preliminary investigation of the opposition leader. Things are getting tense as the opposition prepares big protests. And NPR's Philip Reeves is on the line to tell us about it. Hi there, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Oh, hi, Steve, yeah.

INSKEEP: What has it been like to walk around Caracas the last few days?

REEVES: It's strange. It's subdued. It's very tense. People who support the opposition - and there are a very large number of people who deeply loathe Maduro - are clearly very happy and hoping that this is the moment after a very long time when they're actually going to get the change that they have wished for for so long. But at the same time, the - they've had many previous disappointments. And you see also just genuine fear in people's eyes. And when they talk to you, they talk about how worried they are, about the safety of their family and whether this whole thing is going to melt down into violence.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that because obviously the opposition leader hasn't been arrested yet. He's still walking free. But if the Supreme Court is beginning motions against him, it clearly leans in that direction. What is the plan of Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, to actually take power having claimed it?

REEVES: Well, he's piling on the pressure. He's calling for people to walk out today, out of their homes and offices, for a two-hour nonviolent protest. And then he's also called for a mass demonstration nationwide on Saturday. Remember; he successfully summoned hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets last week. So I expect today's event to be large. And the big question is, how will Maduro's security forces react? Forty people have been killed since this crisis erupted just over a week ago, mostly by Venezuela's security services, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office. And, you know, the worry is that there'll be more bloodshed. But he is piling on pressure.

INSKEEP: And can you describe President Maduro's approach to staying in power? Forty people killed sounds devastating, but we have not reached that moment of the military killing hundreds or thousands at Tiananmen Square kind of incident yet. We have not reached the moment of the opposition leader being in chains. What is Maduro doing?

REEVES: Well, I think he is faced with a very, very serious challenge to his position. And he's having to feel his way forward. It's true the Supreme Court has now frozen Guaido's bank accounts and that he's been banned from leaving the country. But this is a man who Maduro says is attempting a coup with the collaboration of the United States. So you can see that those measures, when you consider that, are carefully calibrated by Maduro.

As for what he's doing, I mean, turn on the TV here, the state-run TV, which the government entirely controls and uses as a channel for propaganda, and you see these days Maduro in front of his Army troops, you know, attending parades and urging them to fight to the end and to be loyal and so on. So that is how he is proceeding in this crisis that he faces. It's got a lot worse now that the U.S. has cut his oil money. So he has to deal with how he's going to, you know, handle that, too.

INSKEEP: Let's remember, the United States is not just supporting the opposition leader. They've formally recognized him as the president, the interim president, of Venezuela, in addition to cutting the oil money and taking other steps. I'm curious, Philip. As you talk with people on the streets of Caracas, do you have any sense of people hoping for or expecting bigger U.S. intervention?

REEVES: Yes. I mean, one of the things that's quite interesting here is that you often meet people who lean to the left but who rather apologetically explain to you that they are very much in favor of the Trump administration because they're very glad to see this happening in Venezuela after so long. And they appreciate the intervention. But at the same time, this concern exists about what's going to happen. You know, if Maduro goes, Steve, it's unlikely to be a clean break with his military and security apparatus all transferring their allegiance to a new interim government.

There are hard-line elements here. In the National Guard, there are these colectivos who've got - who are basically armed pro-government militias with a reputation for committing atrocities. There are elements in the police and intelligence services who've tortured and kill. And they know that the amnesty that's being offered at the moment by the opposition may not apply to them. And there are numerous criminal gangs, Steve, dealing in drugs and gold who flourish out in the countryside where the government grip is very weak. And add all that together, and you have an alarming picture.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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