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World

Venezuela's Army Remains Supportive Of President Maduro

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nicolas Maduro is still holding on to power in Venezuela, mostly because the military there continues to support him. U.S. officials are urging troops to join the opposition. Few have done so. Here's reporter John Otis.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Lieutenant Juan Carlos Mora (ph) spent eight years in Venezuela's National Guard. But last month, he took off his uniform and, to avoid arrest for desertion, crossed the border into Colombia.

JUAN CARLOS MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mora says he was welcomed by immigration agents, who asked him, what took you so long? Mora was part of an exodus of nearly 1,000 members of the Venezuelan army, police and National Guard who, over the past month, fled to Colombia. All have pledged loyalty to Juan Guaido. He's the opposition lawmaker now recognized by the U.S. and about 50 other countries as Venezuela's legitimate president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Guaido met with some of these defectors last month in Cucuta. That's a Colombian border city where Venezuelan volunteers tried and failed to move tons of humanitarian aid into their country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: During the meeting with the Guaido, the troops shouted, long live freedom, my commander-in-chief.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ACTING PRESIDENT JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In his remarks, Guaido offered amnesty to Venezuelan troops who withdraw their support for Maduro. But so far, less than 1 percent of the armed forces have come over to Guaido's side. Those who have are nearly all rank-and-file troops or mid-level officers who commanded relatively few soldiers. Among them is Lieutenant Mora.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says Venezuela's economic crisis was a big factor in his decision. Hyperinflation meant that his monthly salary was only enough to buy a package of diapers for his 1-year-old daughter. Mora also chafed at orders to crack down on anti-government protesters whom he secretly supported.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I was never repressive," he says. "And when I did things, I did them out of self-defense." His plan was to cross into Colombia along with the 50 troops under his command. Mora's hope was that such a mass desertion would help undermine support for Maduro. But counterintelligence agents tapped Mora's telephone and learned of the plot. In a panic, he gathered up his wife and daughter, drove to the Tachira River, which forms the border, and crossed in a canoe.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mora claims that up to 90 percent of troops oppose Maduro but take no action out of fear that they, too, will be discovered. They also fear reprisals against their families - and with good reason.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mora says his brother-in-law back in Venezuela was interrogated four times and forced to sign a document saying he would help capture Mora or go to jail. He got off easy. Human rights groups have documented numerous cases in which relatives of defectors have been detained and tortured.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mora now lives in Cucuta, where the government provides food and hotel rooms to military defectors and their families. Some of them talk of forming a militia to help Guaido take control of Venezuela. But there is little support in Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America for military action against Maduro. Either way, Mora says he's standing by, awaiting orders.

MORA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "Guaido," he says, "is president and military commander. He is now my boss."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Cucuta, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.