Venezuela braced for protests amid moves against Guaido

New protests broke out Wednesday in Venezuela in the wake of a move by the nation’s highest court to freeze bank accounts and impose a travel ban on self-declared interim president Juan Guaido.

Supporters of opposition leader Guaido — who is challenging incumbent Nicolás Maduro — took to the streets a day after the court’s chief justice announced the restrictions on Twitter.

“They thought to cause fear, they thought the people of Venezuela would be scared,” Guaido told reporters at Central University.

The political crisis gripping the country deepened as Guaido urged protesters to demand that the powerful military side with the opposition. Venezuela army defectors have also made a plea to the United States to supply weapons and move the opposition forward.

Venezuela’s attorney general announced earlier Tuesday that Guaido — leader of the democratically elected National Assembly — was under investigation despite the fact that members of parliament are typically immune from prosecution.

Guaido hasn’t formally respond to the attorney general’s investigation or the court’s action.

The opposition leader thanked President Donald Trump via Twitter for calling him to reiterate his “full support of our democratic labor, commitment to humanitarian aid and his administration’s recognition of our (interim) presidency.”

The White House confirmed the phone call, saying in a statement that Trump congratulated Guaido “on his historic assumption of the presidency.” The two men agreed “to maintain regular communication to support Venezuela’s path back to stability, and to rebuild the bilateral relationship between the United States and Venezuela.”

Opposition has nonviolent agenda, senator says

The top Guaido-appointed diplomat in the United States, Carlos Vecchio, has been meeting with US officials this week. After meeting with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he told reporters he’s not asking the US for military support.

“We’ve come here to present a very clear agenda internationally,” Vecchio said. “We want to end the usurpation of power of Nicolas Maduro, set a transitional government and call for free and transparent elections as soon as possible.”

Sen. Jim Risch, the committee’s chairman, said he believes Guaido “has a legitimate, nonviolent plan” to stabilize the situation in Venezuela.

Vecchio had told reporters he would likely meet with Treasury Department representatives on Thursday to “start the process” of recovering and regaining control of blocked Venezuelan assets in the United States.

“That will take a little bit of time,” he said.

US national security adviser John Bolton warned Venezuelan authorities against taking further action targeting Guaido, whom Washington recognizes as the legitimate president. Bolton said there would be “serious consequences” if any harm came to Guaido.

Russia, meanwhile, praised Maduro’s “openness to dialogue” after the embattled leader said he was willing to sit down with the opposition.

Maduro previously said he was ready to talk to the opposition but ruled out new presidential elections until 2025, according to excerpts of an interview published by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

Maduro was re-elected to a six-year term last year, and though he asserted the elections were fair, international observers have questioned their legitimacy.

Journalists reportedly detained

Several foreign journalists reporting on the ongoing unrest in the Latin American country have apparently been detained this week.

Two Chilean journalists had been in custody since Tuesday and will soon be deported, said Television Nacional de Chile, that country’s state run broadcaster.

The journalists, Rodrigo Perez and Gonzalo Barahona, were detained while reporting in the vicinity of Miraflores presidential palace, TVN said.

That prompted Chilean President Sebastian Piñera to demand their immediate release.

“Our foreign ministry is making all the necessary arrangements. Freedom of the press is another victim in Venezuela,” he tweeted.

French journalists also have been detained while working in Venezuela, a French television show said.

“Two journalists from our team were arrested yesterday in Venezuela. They were there to cover the political crisis. At the moment, it is difficult to say more, we risk aggravating their situation. We’re thinking of them,” said a tweet from Quotidien on Wednesday.

TF1, the network producing Quotidien, identified the journalists as Pierre Caillet and Baptiste des Monstiers.

The French Foreign Ministry confirmed the arrest of two French citizens on Wednesday but did not release their identities.

“Our Embassy has requested consular protection in accordance with the Vienna Convention and in particular visiting rights,” the ministry said.

Maduro’s government has not confirmed the detention of the foreign journalists.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said some foreign journalists have entered the country illegally and attempted to enter the presidential palace without proper media accreditation.

“As in any other country in the world, journalists cannot assign themselves an accreditation. International media agencies know that in order to avoid unnecessary inconveniences, they must complete the necessary procedures at the consulates prior to their trip to the country,” Arreaza tweeted.

The journalists are among hundreds of people who have been detained since last week.

More than 800 people have been detained and at least 40 Venezuelans have died in the recent protests, the UN Human Rights Office said Tuesday. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll, and Maduro’s government has released no official figures.

Severe economic strife puts pressure on Maduro

In a series of messages posted to social media Wednesday, Maduro appealed directly to US citizens, asking them to stop the Trump administration from turning Venezuela into “a Vietnam in Latin America.”

“We are a people of peace, with a solid democracy,” Maduro said. “I want to have respectful relations with all the United States. … I ask for peace and respect.”

Maduro, who has presided over a severe economic collapse despite the fact that Venezuela boasts the world’s biggest oil reserves, also accused Washington of targeting his country in an attempt to steal its oil wealth.

Previously, he had blamed Washington for the acute food shortages, soaring unemployment and massive hyperinflation that has wiped out savings.

But economists point to years of economic mismanagement as the more likely cause. Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, funded huge social welfare programs and price-control policies in an effort to steer the country toward socialism, locking up political opponents and stamping out the opposition in the process.

World players weigh in

Guaido’s administration has called on the international community to lend its support to help end Maduro’s dictatorship, establish a transitional government and hold democratic elections as soon as possible.

The White House has been one of Guaido’s most vocal supporters since the crisis began, alongside a handful of democracies throughout Europe and Latin America.

China — Venezuela’s most important creditor — and Russia and Turkey are among those standing behind Maduro.

On Monday, the White House significantly stepped up its attempts to squeeze Maduro by going after Caracas’ most valuable asset: its oil wealth, with sanctions against state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.

The Trump administration has not ruled out any options to deal with the crisis, including military action — speculation fueled in part after Bolton appeared Monday carrying a yellow legal pad inscribed with the words “5000 troops to Colombia.”

It’s unclear if that was a slip-up or an attempt to intimidate the Maduro regime. In any case, Colombia’s foreign minister said in a statement Monday he was unaware of the thinking behind Bolton’s notes.

The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Juan Guaido’s name.