A general from the Venezuelan air force has announced he no longer recognises Nicolas Maduro as the country’s president, in what appears to be the highest ranking military defection to hit the regime.
In a video circulating on social media on Saturday ahead of mass protests planned in Caracas, General Francisco Esteban Yanez Rodriguez says he has disavowed the "dictatorial" authority of Mr Maduro and now recognises Juan Guaido, the self-declared interim president, as Venezuela’s leader.
Wearing military uniform, Gen. Yanez identifies himself as director of strategic planning in the high command of the Venezuelan air force. His role and identity corresponds with that listed on the force’s website.
The general claims that 90 per cent of the country’s armed forces "are not with the dictator, they are with the people of Venezuela".
"The transition to democracy is imminent," he says, urging Venezuelans to come out peacefully into the streets in support of Mr Guaido.
Gen. Yanez also calls on members of the armed forces not to protect Mr Maduro, saying that if they are afraid of backing Mr Guaido openly due to internal threats, they should "stay at home".
"The people have already suffered enough", he says, describing repression and deaths from hunger and lack of medicines. "Do not repress (them) any more."
Mr Maduro has two planes on standby to flee the country, the general claims, adding "he should go".
"The time for democracy is now," he concludes.
It is not clear when or where the two minute video was filmed, nor where Gen. Yanez is now. The Associated Press said they had reached him on a Colombian mobile phone number.
General de División del Alto Mando de la Aviación Militar, Francisco Esteban Yánez Rodríguez, reconoce a Juan Guaidó como presidente encargado. “Me manifiesto por una Venezuela democrática, por la patria de nuestros hijos y la tragedia que vive nuestro pueblo”. #2Febrero pic.twitter.com/3YfgnTsFlY
— Venezuela al Dia (@venezuelaaldia) February 2, 2019
The defection is hugely significant as until now, the high command has remained outwardly steadfast in its loyalty to Mr Maduro.
On January 21, a small group of soldiers in the Cotiza neighbourhood of Caracas announced that they were rising up against Mr Maduro’s government, calling on the people to take to the streets. However the rebellion was swiftly put down.
After Mr Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, swore himself in as president in front of a Caracas rally on January 23, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez, the country’s defence minister, and other members of the top brass, took to the airwaves to pledge their allegiance to Mr Maduro.
The Venezuelan defence attache in Washington released a video last week saying he now supported Mr Guaido. But Gen. Yanez is the first active general to defect.
The United States, Canada and a host of Latin American countries have recognised Mr Guaido as interim president, saying that presidential elections last May were not free and fair.
Several European countries, including the UK, have given Mr Maduro a deadline of midnight on Sunday to call fresh elections, saying they will also recognise Mr Guaido as leader if he does not do so.
Mr Guaido has called for supporters to protest in Caracas on Saturday, while a rival rally celebrating the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Mr Maduro’s predecessor, is also to be held.