Officials loyal to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said they were confronting a "coup" on Tuesday, as opposition leader Juan Guaido called for a popular uprising and claimed the support of the military.
In a video message, Guaido said he had begun the "final phase" of his plan to oust Maduro and he called on the military to support him in his bid to end Maduro's "usurpation.".
Guaido's surprise move could be a make-or-break moment in the long-simmering struggle for power inside Venezuela, with the potential for violence and chaos extremely high.
"The moment is now," Guaido said in the three-minute video taken at a Caracas air base, where he was surrounded by soldiers and accompanied by detained activist Leopoldo Lopez, his political mentor.
Lopez had been under house arrest, but he said Tuesday that military officials freed him and allowed him to join Guaido.
"I have been released by the military to the order of the Constitution and of President Guaidó. I'm at the La Carlota Base," Lopez tweeted. "All to mobilize."
In response, Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela's information minister, declared that Maduro's forces were "currently confronting and deactivating a small group of traitor military personnel" who were at a military base to "promote a coup d'état."
In a message on Twitter, Rodriguez predicted the uprising would be quashed. "We call on the people to stay on high alert, along with the glorious Bolivarian National armed forces, to defeat the coup attempt and preserve the peace," he said. "We will win."
Venezuela's socialist party leader, Diosdado Cabello, called on government supporters to gather at the presidential palace to defend Maduro from what he called a small uprising of military soldiers backed by the U.S.
Gauido has staunch support from President Donald Trump's administration in his bid to oust Maduro, and top U.S. officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, quickly voiced support for Gauido's move to oust Maduro.
"We are with you!" Pence tweeted Tuesday morning. "America will stand with you until freedom & democracy are restored. Vayan con dios! #FreeVenezuela"
Venezuela experts said this was a pivotal moment for the country and could either lead to greater democracy or greater repression.
"This is a sort of make or break moment," said Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Wilson Center. a Washington-based think tank.
"This is either the beginning of the end of the regime, if it goes well," she said. "And if it goes poorly, then Guaido and all other members of the opposition are going to have to go into hiding or risk mass arrest."
Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott called on President Donald Trump to send U.S. military forces to the region, in place to support Guaido.
"President Trump should immediately position American military assets to be ready to deliver aid to the people and defend freedom and democracy as well as U.S. national security interests in our hemisphere," Scott said in a statement Friday. "Guaido and the people of Venezuela have taken this critical step. We cannot abandon them. Inaction is not an option."
Trump has denounced Maduro as illegitimate and his administration has slapped a series of crippling sanctions on his regime in an effort to squeeze the socialist leader from power.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Trump has been briefed on the developments in Venezuela and the White House is "monitoring the ongoing situation."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called Maduro a "thug" and suggested that military leaders were looking for a way to defect. He tweeted his support for Gauido on Tuesday morning.
"Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad. The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy," Pompeo wrote on Twitter. "Democracy cannot be defeated."
Under Maduro's rule, Venezuela has suffered from a severe economic crisis, with rampant inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Opposition leaders in Venezuela said his re-election last May was rife with irregularities; some opposition candidates were barred from even running.
Arnson said the new Maduro-Gauido showdown could worsen an already difficult situation for the Venezuelan people.
"Conditions inside the country resemble that of a country at war," she said. "The country has already been suffering dramatic shortages of food, medicine (and) continued black outs of electricity that affect the availability of running water ... So the desire for change is very high."
Given that backdrop, she said Maduro will have a hard time reasserting control over the government.
Contributing: Associated Press
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Officials for Venezuela President Maduro say government fighting 'coup' as opposition calls for uprising