“Minority of opportunists and cowards” wants to destabilize Venezuela

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a gathering in support of his government in Caracas, Venezuela February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo - RC1DEC98AF40

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Appearing a day after his rival returned home to a tumultuous welcome, President Nicolas Maduro denounced his opponents in a speech Tuesday at a military ceremony but did not refer by name to opposition leader Juan Guaido. The man who says he is the rightful president, meanwhile, escalated his campaign to topple Maduro with an appeal for support from state unions, long reliant on government handouts.

The dueling scenes, evidence of the rift in a country in crisis, came as Venezuelans and the world awaited the next moves of two adversaries maneuvering for an edge in what could be a protracted struggle. The Maduro government’s decision not to move against Guaido upon his return to Venezuela on Monday reflects the intense pressure Maduro faces and, possibly, a calculation that restraint is the best tactic for now.

Still, Maduro was defiant during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the death of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, belittling a “minority of opportunists and cowards.” He said government supporters would hold a rally on Saturday, a “day of anti-imperialism” in his words, and a counter to U.S.-backed Guaido’s plans to hold nationwide protests the same day.

Maduro also pinned medals on members of the security forces involved in a crackdown on Guaido’s failed Feb. 23 attempt to bring humanitarian aid into Venezuela from Brazil and Colombia. Maduro has described the attempt, backed by the U.S. and its allies, as part of a plot to overthrow his government.

Hours earlier, Guaido said police officials were among those at a meeting that he held with leaders of public employee unions, which rely heavily on subsidies from Maduro’s government to get by in a country suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and other necessities.

“We’re not going to collaborate any longer with the dictatorship,” Guaido said after a meeting at the offices of an engineers’ association in Caracas. He urged state workers to prepare for a strike, though no date was given and he said an immediate priority will be to promote a law guaranteeing rights for public workers.