Venezuelan opposition holds rally amid first major army defection

Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaidó is urging demonstrators to stay in the streets. The self-proclaimed interim president spoke to tens of thousands of supporters on Saturday who are demanding Nicolas Maduro step down from power.

It was an upbeat crowd, with a common purpose.

Rich and poor — young and old — all these Venezuelans are telling President Nicholas Maduro the same thing: He’s got to go.

The crowd chanted “he’s gonna fall, he’s gonna fall, his government’s gonna fall,” said one person in the crowd. “This has been a saying for many years” 

The anti-Maduro opposition believes Saturday may be a turning point and there’s no doubt a crowd like this, with thousands of voices united, will pack a punch. But it alone won’t be enough to force Maduro from power.

For the moment, the army appears to be publicly backing Maduro, though the first high-profile defection came in a video post Saturday morning. Air force general Yanez Rodriguez said he’s backing Guaidó, and claimed that 90 percent of the armed forces have lost faith in Maduro.

People gather in support of Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido outside the University of Buenos Aires’ Law School, Argentina, February 2, 2019. AGUSTIN MARCARIAN / REUTERS

Maduro still has supporters, and they staged a counter-demonstration Saturday in Caracas, but a new poll said they’re in the minority.

After years of economic decay, corruption and violence, the poll showed 82 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro to quit. 

If – and it’s still a big if – he does, the 37-year-old lawmaker Juan Guaidó will succeed him. The U.S. already recognizes him as interim president – and Guaidó on Saturday told the huge opposition crowd he announced two more big rallies in the coming days to keep the pressure on.

To the people in this crowd, victory feels tantalizingly close. 

One Guaidó supporter said Saturday feels different because “now there’s hope. We’ve been heard all around the world, and we know we have the support we didn’t have before. We’ve been in the street for many, many times and now we like we’re supported by the rest of the world.”

And now in what could be a decisive move in this power struggle, Guaidó and his fellow lawmakers have drafted amnesty legislation, which would offer any military that do decide to switch sides immunity from prosecution.  

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