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Venezuela's Guaido tells Maduro 'pressure just beginning'

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Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido vowed on Tuesday to step up the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro a day after defying the threat of arrest to return to a hero's welcome in Caracas.

[CARACAS] Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido vowed on Tuesday to step up the pressure on President Nicolas Maduro a day after defying the threat of arrest to return to a hero's welcome in Caracas.

The 35-year-old National Assembly leader has not even been mentioned publicly by Mr Maduro's government since his homecoming from a tour of friendly neighbours, let alone faced arrest.

"They're drowning in contradictions, they don't know how to respond to Venezuela's people," Mr Guaido told reporters. "They thought the pressure had reached its zenith but it's only just beginning."

Battered by an economic meltdown, Venezuela descended into a major political crisis when Mr Guaido declared himself interim president in January and asserted that Mr Maduro was no longer legitimate.

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Recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela's interim president, Mr Guaido flouted a government travel ban to embark on a 10-day tour of South American allies seeking support for Mr Maduro's ouster.

When Mr Guaido returned to Caracas on Monday, tens of thousands of supporters turned out around the country to welcome him home. On Tuesday, a national holiday, he met public sector union leaders.

"Public sector workers have lost practically all their rights, we have no other option but to call for a civic strike," said Mr Guaido, without giving any further details.

Unions from the oil industry, basic services, the public bank and local government took part in the meeting, union leader Ana Yanez told AFP.

"The public administration is practically paralsed. In the town halls people only go to work three days a week and even then barely half the day," said Ms Yanez.

Mr Guaido's return marks the latest challenge to Mr Maduro's authority since the young challenger declared himself acting president on January 23, vowing to set up a transitional government and hold new elections.

The opposition-controlled legislature had declared Mr Maduro to be a "usurper" for assuming a second term of office on the basis of a disputed election in May that was widely condemned as fraudulent.

As part of his challenge, Mr Guaido is attempting to take control of the state bureaucracy, which he considers to have been "kidnapped" by Mr Maduro through blackmail and persecution.

Mr Maduro was active on Twitter on Tuesday, but only to mark the anniversary of the death of his predecessor Hugo Chavez.

"Thanks to your teachings and your example we're continuing the permanent fight against those who tried so many times to extinguish your voice," wrote Mr Maduro.

During his travels, Mr Guaido met US Vice-President Mike Pence and the leaders of Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Chile and Ecuador.

He crossed into Colombia on February 23 to lead a bid to bring in humanitarian aid stockpiled near the border, but the move was blocked by the military and security forces in a day of chaos and bloodshed.

Venezuela is wracked by a humanitarian crisis that has seen poverty soar with an estimated 2.7 million people leaving the country since 2015.

AFP