A Venezuelan air force general defected from the administration of President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday and called on his compatriots to participate in protests against the socialist leader’s rule.
Gen. Francisco Yanez is the first high ranking officer to leave Maduro’s government since Jan. 23, when National Assembly President Juan Guaido declared himself the country’s legitimate leader.
In a YouTube video, Yanez said: “The transition to democracy is imminent.” He described Maduro as a dictator and referred to Guaido as his president, but refused to say whether he is still in Venezuela or has left the country.
In a brief phone conversation with The Associated Press the officer confirmed, from a Colombian number, the veracity of his declaration and said he would not give further statements until given authorization by “the commander-in-chief of the legal armed force which is President Juan Guaido.”
In the video, Yanez claimed that “90 percent” of the country’s armed forces are against Maduro.
But it is still unclear how much support there is for Guaido within Venezuela’s military.
Shortly after protests broke out against Maduro last week, Venezuela’s most important regional military commanders and its defense minister issued a statement in support of Maduro, describing Guaido as a coup monger backed by the United States.
The military controls some of the country’s key assets including the state run oil company, and its top brass has helped Maduro to survive previous rounds of mass protests in 2014 and 2017 by jailing activists and repressing protesters.
This month’s protests, however, have received overwhelming support from abroad, with the U.S., Canada and many others already recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader.
Guaido argues that Maduro’s re-election last year was rife with fraud, and he has invoked two articles of Venezuela’s constitution which he argues give him the right to assume presidential powers.
On Saturday morning, streams of marchers walked from middle-class and poor neighborhoods to gather at points across the capital of Caracas for a demonstration to demand Maduro’s resignation and a transitional government that will hold new elections in the South American country.
Xiomara Espinoza, 59, said she felt a change of energy in the crowd, whose hopes for a political transition in Venezuela have previously been dashed.
“We are around the corner from freedom,” Espinoza said, banging on a pot and wearing a Venezuelan flag. Espinoza said 23 of her nieces and nephews have left Venezuela due to the country’s spiraling economic crisis, which has caused widespread food shortages and hyperinflation expected to surpass 1 million percent this year.
Maduro has described the protests as part of a U.S.-led coup attempt and called on his supporters to organize their own march on Saturday in defense of his Bolivarian Revolution.
“Our struggle for self-determination has deep roots in the historic independence battles waged by our Liberators. From them comes strength, with which we defend the Sovereignty and the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela,” Maduro tweeted.