The impasse between the government of Nicolas Maduro and the interim government of opposition leader Juan Guaido entered its third day in Venezuela — as both leaders gave defiant national addresses on Friday, and a new report suggested that private military contractors were dispatched from Russia to help beef up Maduro’s security team.
The dueling speeches took place hours after a caravan of armored SUVs was seen leaving the American embassy in Caracas, as the deadline imposed by embattled Maduro for American diplomats to leave the country looms.
More than two dozen people have died during protests this week, several organizations said, and as of Friday evening local time, 369 protesters had been detained since protests started Monday, according to Foro Penal, a local legal organization tracking arrests.
The U.S. State Department yesterday ordered all “non-emergency” staff to leave Venezuela, but said the embassy would remain open at the request of the government of Guaido, whom American officials and several governments recognize as the legitimate president of Venezuela.
But on Friday, Maduro reiterated that U.S. diplomats need to leave within the 72 hours he gave them earlier this week, continuing to call this week’s events a “U.S.-orchestrated coup” and casting doubt on U.S. Secretary of State’s Mike Pompeo’s interest in sending humanitarian aid to Venezuela.
Those who want to see Maduro leave office are cheering Guaido’s decision this week to swear himself in as interim president, a move supported by the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and a handful of other countries. But others are calling the National Assembly president’s move a coup d’etat. Both sides fear that the political conflict could spiral into widespread violence and perhaps even a civil war.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Friday that private military contractors “who do secret work for Russia” have been dispatched to Venezuela to help beef up Maduro’s security team.
Russia’s ambassador to Venezuela, Vladimir Zayemsky, denied the Reuters report, telling Russian state media it was a “spoof story.”
Evgeny Shabaev, the leader of a paramilitary Cossack group with ties to the contractors, told ABC News that the contractors were military veterans who specialize in VIP protection, and that they had been flown into Caracas via Havana on the night Jan. 22, landing the same day that Guaido declared himself interim president.
Shabaev said some of the contractors’ relatives had told him the group could be as many as 400 men, flown on two flights. Other sources told Reuters that the numbers were much smaller.
Russian mercenaries have been appearing with increasing frequency around the world, most prominently in Syria but recently also in Africa, including in Central African Republic where they are believed to be guarding the country’s president.
They’ve also been reported in Sudan and Gabon. Shabaev said he did not know who had hired the men for Venezuela. The contractors are often linked to a private company known as the Wagner Group, owned by an oligarch close to Putin. Experts believe the contractors are often hired for sensitive missions where the Kremlin prefers some deniability.
Russia has entered Venezuela’s crisis by siding with Maduro, accusing the U.S. of seeking an illegal regime change and warning Washington against a military intervention. On Thursday, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin called Maduro to express his support and described the crisis as “provoked from outside”.
The Kremlin has established itself as a key ally of Maduro in recent years, signing substantial military contracts and helping prop up Venezuela’s shambolic economy with billions of dollars in loans. In December, Russia sent two nuclear-capable Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela as another sign of support.During Maduro’s most recent visit to Moscow in December, he announced Russia would invest $5 billion in Venezuela’s oil industry and another $1 billion in its mining industry. If Maduro falls Russia now risks losing its investments.
As Pompeo prepared for a meeting with the United Nations Security Council, Maduro said he was planning to send his own foreign minister to New York.
“We’re getting ready with the military to defend Venezuela in any scenario that could take place,” he said in a televised address. “I have not abandoned power and I will not abandon it.”
Venezuela’s Minister of Defense and the head of the military said Thursday that they backed Maduro, while a former Venezuelan official told ABC News that there are growing concerns about the possibility of two warring factions forming within the military.
Maduro also said he had received a request from rival Guaido asking for a meeting with government officials, and that he was willing to meet with him.
For his part, Guaido reaffirmed his commitment to offer amnesty to any and all military and government officials, soldiers and police officers who chose to support his interim government.
Speaking to several hundred people at a public square in Caracas, Guaido — who had not been seen in person since his swearing in Wednesday amid security concerns — made direct appeals to the armed forces and asked them to join what he calls the “only legitimate government” in Venezuela.
“Brothers, I’m talking to you: the time is here, the time is here to work side by side with the constitution, the time is here to respect the people of Venezuela,” he said, as hundreds yelled chants calling Guaido president and Maduro an “usurper.”
Guaido added that his government is making moves towards ensuring that the Maduro regime can’t access the country’s financial assets, from which Guaido claimed Maduro has been pilfering.
“We won’t keep allowing them to steal Venezuela’s government like they’ve been doing for so many years,” he said. “We’ll see what the Armed Forces say when they realize that the usurpers who now live in the Miraflores presidential palace can’t even pay the check, they can’t even pay for their salaries.”
Hours later, the Department of State signaled the U.S. would start taking economic measures against the Maduro government to make American economic policies “consistent” with the government’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s leader.
“The United States will use its economic and diplomatic tools to ensure that commercial transactions by the Venezuelan Government, including those involving its state-owned enterprises and international reserves, are consistent with this recognition,” State Department officials said in a statement.
In mid-December, Guaido slipped across the lawless border with Colombia to brief leaders there on his opposition strategy of widespread demonstrations in Venezuela set to coincide with Maduro’s swearing in for a second term, earlier this month, the Associated Press reported on Friday.
Guaido took the hidden route into Colombia to sidestep immigration officials, who reportedly sometimes harass opposition leaders or prevent them from international travel. Guaido also traveled quietly to Washington D.C. and Brazil last month for the same purposes, according to the AP.
Saying that Venezuela has finally “woken up” from the nightmare it’s been living in for two decades now, Guaido said his movements will stay on the streets until they can guarantee a transitional government and free elections.
Under the Venezuelan constitution, Guaido’s government has 30 days from the moment he was sworn in to hold presidential elections in the country. During his speech today, he said the international community’s recognition of his interim government implies a certain degree of trust that he will get the country on the road back to democracy.
Humanitarian aid — he said — was the first step toward helping Venezuelans distressed by the country’s current economic crisis.
“In just two days we achieved what [the Maduro government] couldn’t do in six years -– authorizing the entry of humanitarian assistance,” he said, referring to the $20 million in aid Pompeo pledged yesterday.
Guaido claimed he’s been in communications with other countries to get more help.
Still, the 35-year-old politician remains realistic about the risks of moving forward with his agenda in a country where dissidents are consistently imprisoned or exiled.
“They could put me in jail today, and the Venezuelan people very well know that, as does the world,” he said in an interview on Friday morning. “We know it’s not easy, but we’ll keep on going until we win. We know that the hope that started today in the hearts of millions of Venezuelans is not because of one person, it’s because of the firm belief that we can have a better country.”
ABC News’ Conor Finnegan, Kirit Radia and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.