Key military ally abandons embattled Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro after Trump withdraws support

A departure by a key military officer from Venezuela’s government may be signaling the collapse of the current socialist regime.

Col. Jose Luis Salva, Venezuela’s leading ambassador to the United States, defected from the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday, days after U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his support for opposition leader Juan Guadio.

Trump’s support for Guadio prompted Maduro to cut all diplomatic ties with the U.S. last week. Non-emergency personnel representing the United States in Venezuela were withdrawn from the nation soon after.

Venezuela’s new president?

Amid an economic crisis and rampant human rights violations, the dictator-like Maduro has watched his credibility vanish over the last several weeks — and Salva’s departure from his administration may be the biggest blow yet.

In a statement explaining his decision, which was filmed from the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, Salva said that he now recognizes Guaido — who previously led the country’s legislative body and who declared himself acting president on Wednesday — as the interim leader of Venezuela. Salva went on to call on his “brothers in the armed forces of the nation to recognize President Juan Guaido as the only legitimate president.”

But while the U.S. has stood behind Guaido in recent days, countries like Spain, France, Germany, and the U.K. have said that they will only recognize Guaido as president if Maduro does not call for a democratic election in the next eight days. Maduro has rejected that offer.

“They should withdraw this ultimatum,” Maduro said of the countries calling for an election. “Venezuela is not tied to Europe. This is complete insolence.”

Maduro, who was voted into a second term last year in what many have called a fraudulent election, has also accused the U.S. of facilitating a coup. Meanwhile, protests and riots have broken out across the South American nation since Maduro’s second swearing-in ceremony earlier this month.

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Key player switches sides

But Maduro’s power rests in his control of Venezuela’s military, which plays a large role in their government — and Salva wants his military “brothers” to join him in opposition.

“The armed forces have a fundamental role in the restoration of the democracy in our country,” Salva said in his Saturday statement. “Please, brothers, do not attack our people.”

While Salva received praise from Guaido for his statement, he has been condemned by the Venezuelan government at large. The country’s defense ministry even tweeted photos of Salva with the word “traitor” stamped across them shortly after Salva released his statement.

At this time, it is unclear whether further defections are imminent among Venezuela’s military.

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