Venezuelans fleeing hyperinflation and poverty share stories of struggle at small cantina across the border in Colombia.
Venezuela‘s President Nicolas Maduro expressed readiness to hold negotiations with the American-backed opposition in the presence of international mediators, while accusing the US of ordering his assassination.
The beleaguered leader, who previously rejected calls for talks, told Russia‘s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday he changed his stance “for the sake of Venezuela’s peace and its future”.
Maduro said the talks could be held with the mediation of other countries and he mentioned Mexico, Uruguay, Bolivia, the Vatican and Russia as potential third parties.
He accused US President Donald Trump of organising his killing, saying he was aware of Trump’s “orders” for the Colombian government and local mafia to carry it out. He offered no evidence to support the allegation.
“If something happens to me one day then Donald Trump and Colombian President Ivan Duque will be responsible for everything that is happening to me,” he said.
“At the same time, I am protected. We have a good system of defence in place and moreover, we have more significant protection – this is protection from God who will give me a long life.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday Maduro’s opponents must drop all preconditions for talks to take place.
“We call on the opposition to refuse ultimatums and to work together independently, guided only by the interests of the Venezuelan people,” Lavrov told reporters.
Maduro also denounced calls for his resignation, saying it amounted to blackmail.
“We do not accept the ultimatum from anyone in the world, we do not accept blackmail,” he said.
“The presidential elections in Venezuela were held, but if the imperialists want new elections, let them wait until 2025.”
However, he said he would support early parliamentary elections.
“It would be very good to conduct parliamentary elections at an earlier stage, it would be a good form of political discussion,” Maduro said.
He also implied he was firmly in charge of the army whose support is crucial.
“I am carrying out my duties as commander-in-chief according to the constitution consolidating the national Bolivarian armed forces,” he said. “And the Bolivarian armed forces are demonstrating a lesson in ethics, loyalty and discipline.”
Maduro refused to comment on reports last week that Kremlin-linked private military contractors have been dispatched to boost his security detail, saying he “cannot say anything about it”.
Trump, meanwhile, appeared to suggest a US role in Maduro’s about-face on holding talks with the self-declared interim president Juan Guaido.
Maduro willing to negotiate with opposition in Venezuela following U.S. sanctions and the cutting off of oil revenues. Guaido is being targeted by Venezuelan Supreme Court. Massive protest expected today. Americans should not travel to Venezuela until further notice.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2019
Maduro has been in charge of Venezuela since 2013, but his re-election in May was branded illegitimate by the European Union, United States, and the Organization of American States.
Last week, the oil-rich but economically devastated Latin American country was plunged into uncertainty when the US-backed opposition leader Guaido proclaimed himself “acting president”.
The United States, a dozen Latin American countries, and Canada have recognised Guaido as interim president, while China and Russia – Venezuela’s two main creditors – have urged non-interference.
Guaido, a previously little-known legislator, has re-invigorated the opposition movement by pushing for three immediate goals: to end Maduro’s “usurpation” of power, establish a transitional government, and hold a new presidential election.
In an interview with German daily Bild, Guaido called on the EU on Wednesday to level “more sanctions” against Maduro’s government.
On Tuesday, Guaido urged Venezuelans to step outside their homes and workplaces for two hours on Wednesday in the first mass mobilisation since last week’s large protests.
“Venezuela is set on change,” he said.
The UN human rights office said security forces in Venezuela detained nearly 700 people in just one day of anti-government demonstrations last week – the highest such tally in a single day in the country in at least 20 years.
It said more than 40 people are believed to have been killed.
Maduro’s allies blame the opposition for the violence and deny the high death toll as well as reports that minors were among those arrested.
On Monday, the US imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, that could potentially deprive the Maduro government of $11bn in export revenues over the next year.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified that Guaido has the authority to take control of any Venezuelan government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or any other US-insured banks.
He said the certification would “help Venezuela’s legitimate government safeguard those assets for the benefit of the Venezuelan people”.
But the plan was complicated by the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal’s decision to freeze Guaido’s bank accounts and bar him from leaving the country, after chief prosecutor Tarek William Saab announced he was opening a criminal investigation of Maduro’s rival.
Venezuela’s economy is ravaged by hyperinflation and widespread food and medicine shortages that have driven millions of people to leave the country.
Maduro called the US sanctions “criminal” and vowed to challenge them in court.
The US State Department is telling Americans not to travel to Venezuela, warning of the threat of being arbitrarily arrested or caught in a protest.
Venezuela was put on the highest US level advisory, a list that also includes Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.