Trump administration throws support behind apparent coup in Venezuela

The Trump administration has thrown its support behind an apparent coup in Venezuela, where supporters of National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó have taken to the streets in an attempt to overthrow President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats warn State Dept against punishing individuals who testify in impeachment hearings Pompeo condemns 'deplorable' killings of Iraqi protesters MORE expressed support for Guaidó’s efforts on Tuesday morning. The U.S. previously had recognized Guaidó as the country's president in January. 

“Today interim President Juan Guaido announced start of Operación Libertad,” Pompeo wrote in a tweet. “The U.S. Government fully supports the Venezuelan people in their quest for freedom and democracy. Democracy cannot be defeated.” 

The U.S. has imposed heavy sanctions on Venezuela, and President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE has come close to threatening military action in the country, saying in February that "all options" were on the table. 

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Trump has also used Venezuela as a political tool, arguing it serves as a warning sign of what would happen if socialist policies were adopted in the United States.

Guaidó, with the backing of countries including the U.S. and much of Europe, invoked Venezuela's constitution to assume an interim presidency in January, claiming that Maduro’s election in 2018 was illegitimate.

He has been traveling across Venezuela and outside the country frequently to gin up support for his effort. 

Earlier on Tuesday, Guaidó and his supporters freed activist Leopoldo Lopez, the founder Guaidó's political party Voluntad Popular, from house arrest. 

Lopez and Guaidó had called for supporters to head to La Carlota, a military base in the eastern part of Caracas, to back their efforts. Protesters were met by tear gas, though it was not clear who fired the canisters, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. 

Guaidó and Lopez had been calling for protests, which Guaidó said would be “the largest march in Venezuela’s history.” He described the marches as the “final phase” of his effort to take office and call for new elections.

In a series of tweets, Guaidó said the plan to end Maduro's "usurpation" was entering its "final phase" and called on the country's armed forces to join him.

"The people of Venezuela began the end of the usurpation," Guaidó tweeted. "In this moment I find myself with the principal units of our Armed Forces initiating the final phase of Operation Liberty." 

“I want to tell the Venezuelan people: This is the moment to take to the streets and accompany these patriotic soldiers,” Lopez, who had been detained since 2014 for leading anti-government protests, said while marching in the streets with Guaidó, according to The Associated Press. “Everyone should come to the streets, in peace.”

The group of military members and citizens joining Guaidó's push to oust Maduro was around 70 and growing Tuesday morning, according to Reuters.

Maduro's government has dismissed the notion of a possible military uprising.

"We inform the Venezuelan people that in these moments we are facing and deactivating a reduced group of military traitors positions in the Distribuidor Altamira [a highway in Caracas] to promote a coup d'etat against the constitution and peace of the Republic," communications minister Jorge Rodríguez tweeted.

"Far right coup supporters and assassins have joined this effort, which has announced their violent agenda for months. We call on the people to keep themselves at maximum alert to, together with the glorious National Bolivarian Army, defeat this coup d'etat and maintain the peace. We will overcome." 

While Guaidó and his supporters have continued protests in recent months, Maduro has remained in control of key state institutions and kept the support of senior members of the military. 

Maduro, who was elected following the death of Hugo Chávez, has denounced Guaidó as a puppet of the U.S., invoking failed coup attempts against his predecessor.

Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López on Tuesday rejected what he called an attempt by a “subversive movement” to generate “panic and terror.” 

Mexico, one of the most politically influential countries in Latin America that has not backed Guaidó, released a statement expressing “worry” over the situation developing in Venezuela.

“The Mexican Government is closely following the situation developing in Venezuela and expresses its worry over the possible escalation of violence and blood loss that could occur because of it,” the government said in a statement. 

“Mexico reiterates its desire and commitment to finding a peaceful, democratic solution to this crisis through dialogue, prioritizing in all moments unrestricted respect of human rights.”

Updated at 9:53 a.m.