Venezuela power struggle hinges on Nicolas Maduro's military

Battle for power in Venezuela

Last Updated Jan 31, 2019 2:03 PM EST

Caracas, Venezuela -- Waving flags and chanting "freedom," Venezuelans hit the streets again on Wednesday in a peaceful demonstration against the country's embattled President Nicolas Maduro. His rule, they say, has ruined Venezuela.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports the protesters say they've had enough of food shortages, hospitals without drugs, gross corruption and dirty politics -- especially after Maduro's re-election late last year, which they believe was rigged.

"We want free and decent elections, we deserve them," said protester Maribel Quevedo.

"We have fought for 20 years against this (government), we can't take it anymore," added Maciel Trejo.

The man leading the anti-Maduro fight joined the protesters on the streets of Caracas. Juan Guaidó, head of Venezuela's congress, the National Assembly, has been recognized as interim president by the United States, along with Canada, the European Union, the Organization of American States and more than a dozen Latin American nations.

But Maduro still has the firm backing of his international allies, including Russia and China. Closer to home, Mexico and Cuba are also maintaining relations with his regime.

U.S. imposes sanctions against Venezuela's state oil company

In an op-ed in Thursday's New York Times, Guaidó called for more global support to try and pressure Maduro's military commanders into abandoning him.

"The military's withdrawal of support from Mr. Maduro is crucial to enabling a change in government," he wrote.

The U.S. government is also trying to increase the pressure on Maduro within his own country's borders. Vice President Mike Pence is expected in Miami on Friday to meet members of the Venezuelan exile community, and give robust remarks expressing the Trump administration's backing of Guaidó. President Trump himself congratulated Guaidó in a tweet on Wednesday on what he called his, "historic assumption of the presidency."

But Maduro has doubled down. Yesterday state television broadcast pictures of him calling on gathered troops to defend their commander in chief and, for now, the military appears to be standing firm.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with soldiers at a military base in Caracas
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a meeting with soldiers at a military base in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 30, 2019. HANDOUT

Maduro also had a warning for the United States, issued in a direct appeal to the American public -- in English -- via a tweet. He claimed the Trump administration, "intends to turn my Homeland into a 'Vietnam war' in Latin America. Don't allow it!"

The Trump administration has left all options on the table to support Guaidó as he tries to solidify his power -- and to defend him from Maduro, if necessary. The White House's new envoy for Venezuela policy, Elliot Abrams, noted on Wednesday that Maduro's "regime has not acted against him (Guaidó) in some time and I hope that is because they recognize that he has the support of the vast majority of Venezuelans."  

Europe also appeared to ratchet up its backing for Guaidó on Thursday, with the EU calling on all 28 member states to individually recognize him as the legitimate Venezuelan leader. "All of Venezuela is watching us," Member of the European Parliament Esteban Gonzalez Pons, of Spain, said on Thursday. "Let's make Venezuelan history today by recognizing the democratic and legitimate power of Venezuela."

Guaidó tweeted that he had spoken on the phone with the leader of the EU Parliament and begun "processes of cooperation between Venezuela and Europe with a view to protecting assets and humanitarian aid." He added his own gentle prod to the 28 individual member states, noting that his country was, "waiting on the countries of Europe."

SKOREA-US-MILITARY
A file photo shows a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster cargo jet landing at U.S. Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Sept. 23, 2016. Getty

Meanwhile, a U.S. C-17 landed in the neighboring country of Colombia on Wednesday, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports. Officials insist the flight to the Colombian capital of Bogata was part of a normal mission.

Aviation bloggers had noted that two U.S. military planes -- including a giant C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft -- paid a visit. Colombian media reports, citing U.S. officials, said no American troops got off the jets to stay in Colombia, and the U.S. military has long cooperated closely with Colombia's forces.

Voice of America's Steve Herman called the visit by the C-17 "unusual," and coming just days after Mr. Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton was seen holding a notepad with the words "5,000 troops to Colombia" scrawled on it, the four-hour stop by the C-17 has piqued interest in the region.

Officials said Wednesday's flight was not the precursor to 5,000 troops, Martin reports. The U.S. has about 200 troops in Colombia along with a security agreement that supports training.

Guaidó has said his Western-backed, parallel Venezuelan government is in secret talks with elements of the country's military, and he's repeatedly offered amnesty to commanders and troops not guilty of committing crimes against humanity.

The opposition leader addressed the country later at an event in Caracas, claiming security forces showed up at his wife's apartment in an attempt to intimidate him. 

"The dictatorship thinks it can intimidate us," Guaido said.