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U.S. Bolsters Venezuela Opposition Leader; Nation's Military Backs Maduro

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So that was the U.N. Security Council in New York. While the U.N. Security Council was debating the Venezuela political crisis in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, this was going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas, and he's with us now. Phil, what are we listening to there?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, that's a rally that took place in the middle of Caracas. The crowd's singing the Venezuelan national anthem while on the stage is Juan Guiado, the man who's very much in the center of this confrontation that's happening here, this political drama. This is Guiado's second street rallies since declaring himself interim president in front of a huge crowd in this city on Wednesday and taking the oath and then immediately being recognized by the U.S., Canada, many Latin American nations and others. So he's taking his challenge to Maduro to the streets. And he says, despite the risk of arrest, he's going to carry on doing that until Maduro leaves. There's going to be a week of mass protests next week, he says.

MARTIN: So that sounded like a much smaller crowd than the ones you had described earlier. What do you make of that?

REEVES: Oh, yes, it was far smaller. I mean, the one on Wednesday was absolutely massive. This was a couple of thousand people. I think one reason is that Guiado announced this meeting late last night. Transport is pretty hard in Caracas, and people are worried about violence of course. But this is also actually a cabildo, and now that's a kind of open-air town hall meeting. The opposition, led by Guiado, have held a lot of these in recent days around the country. It's a new way of pressuring Maduro. They use these to explain to people their view that Maduro's presidency's illegitimate because he won his second term, which has just begun, on the basis of a rigged election.

And today, at this cabildo, this meeting, Guiado went over some of his main themes. He talked about the victims of Maduro's government, political prisoners, people who'd been tortured and killed. And he also talked about the amnesty that he and the National Assembly, which he heads, is offering the military and the police and appealed for the security services and civil servants to swap sides and abandon Maduro.

MARTIN: So what's your sense of the rest of Caracas? What's the mood there elsewhere as this is all playing out?

REEVES: Well, you know, the reception at that rally was warm. And there were, you know, some big cheers. And people chanted, president, president, and yet it felt subdued. And if you talk to Guiado's supporters, they they do say they see this as a key moment of change. But no one seems entirely confident. And you sort of see that and feel that if you drive around the city. A lot of the city's quieter than usual. You see more soldiers and National Guard around on the streets.

The presidential palace where Maduro's based has more soldiers outside of it than before, although today I saw people in red T-shirts and red baseball caps going into the palace. Presumably, that's the uniform of the Chavistas that support the Maduro government. And presumably, they were heading for counter-rally in the palace in favor of Maduro, who says he's not going anywhere and that he's the victim of an attempted coup masterminded by the U.S. - a view which, by the way, is shared by Russia and others of his international allies.

MARTIN: So, you know, speaking of the U.S., on Wednesday, Maduro severed relations with the U.S. and gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave. That deadline expires tomorrow. What is happening with them?

REEVES: Well, the U.S. Embassy's up in the hills that overlooks Caracas. I went up there today. It's very quiet. The embassy is, of course, heavily fortified, as they always are. Maduro has said that the diplomats within it must leave Sunday and close the embassy. The U.S. says it doesn't recognize that order from Maduro because they say Maduro is no longer president in Washington's eyes. Nonessential staff and families have actually left, they did so yesterday. But the rest of the mission is staying. And Juan Guiado says that, as interim president, they have his permission to do so.

So we don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. If Maduro chooses to make this into some form of showdown, he's taking a big risk. The U.S. has made it pretty clear that there'll be strong retaliation if he harms any of its diplomats. And they've said in Washington that no options are off the table.

REEVES: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Caracas. Philip, thanks so much for talking to us.

MARTIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.