Jose Luis Silva, a key Venezuelan military official, has stepped down as defense attache in the US and thrown his weight behind opposition leader Juan Guaido. The military could play a crucial role in the current crisis.
Venezuela's defense attache to the United States, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, broke with President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday and said he supported opposition leader Juan Guaido (pictured above).
Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself interim president on Wednesday in the most direct challenge to Maduro's authoritarian presidency to date.
Speaking from his office in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, Silva called for free and fair elections to take place in Venezuela.
"As the Venezuelan defense attache in the United States, I do not recognize Mr. Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela," Silva told the Spanish-language, Miami-based newspaper El Nuevo Herald.
"My message to all armed forces members, to everyone who carries a gun, is to please let's not attack the people. We are also part of the people, and we've had enough of supporting a government that has betrayed the most basic principles and sold itself to other countries," he said in the interview.
An online video showed Silva delivering similar remarks in military uniform from an office desk with the Venezuelan flag behind him.
It was not immediately clear whether Silva had also stepped down from his position.
Guaido responded to Silva's video message on Twitter: "We welcome him and all those who want to support the CRBV [Venezuelan Constitution] with integrity and the will of the Venezuelan people."
He added that as a "legitimate and responsible institution," they were working to verify the information.
Army support seen as crucial
The announcement from Silva is significant, as military leaders in Venezuela had previously voiced their loyalty to the Maduro government and described Guaido's self-appointment as a coup. The army's support is seen as playing a crucial role in the conflict between the Maduro government and the opposition movement under Guaido, which is calling for free elections.
Silva, like other Venezuelan diplomatic officials in the US, had been ordered to return to Venezuela after Maduro cut diplomatic ties to the US earlier this week following Washington's recognition of Guaido as interim president.
On Saturday, the Maduro government announced it had suspended a directive for all US diplomats to leave Venezuela within 72 hours and instead would allow them to remain in the country while talks for a potential "interests office" take place over the next 30 days. Some staff from both embassies had already left by Saturday.
Earlier in the week Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez spoke 'in support of the constitutional president,' Maduro.
Read more: Venezuela and the US: From friends to foes
In addition to the US, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and numerous Latin American countries have also recognized Guaido as interim president. Germany, France, the UK and the EU have voiced their support, but stopped short of an official endorsement.
US at UN: Back Venezuelan people
The US government welcomed Silva's announced, with National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis tweeting, "The role of the military is to protect constitutional order, not to sustain dictators and repress its own people."
Earlier in the day, at a UN Security Council meeting called by the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo call on the body's members to back the Venezuelan people in their efforts to end Maduro's "illegitimate mafia state." He had no comments on what the US would do next.
However Russia, which, like the US, is a permanent member of the Security Council, denounced the US for interference and voted to block the body from placing Venezuela on the discussion agenda, as did three other council members.
"Venezuela does not pose any threat to peace and security," said Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia. "The intention of the United States is to orchestrate a coup d'etat." Russia has business and oil ties to Venezuela.
Maduro has repeatedly described the opposition movement as a US-backed "imperialist" attempt to destabilize the country.
cmb/cmk (EFE, AFP, Reuters)