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Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to supporters in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 25, 2019.

Meridith Kohut/The New York Times News Service

Tension in Venezuela intensified on Friday, as the country’s two presidents staged duelling news conferences – one to denounce a coup attempt, the other to call for mass mobilization against the regime and defections from the army – and the international community intensified pressure on Nicolas Maduro to cede power.

The Venezuelan military, the key force that could determine which side wins the showdown, continues publicly to back Mr. Maduro, who was re-elected last May in a vote in which most opposition figures were barred from participating, and who has overseen a spiralling economic collapse. There were media reports on Friday that Russia had flown a squad of several hundred mercenaries into Caracas to reinforce his claim on power.

Juan Guaido, a 35-year-old engineer-turned-legislator who was elected president of the National Assembly on Jan. 5, electrified Venezuela’s beleaguered opposition this past week by swearing himself in as interim president, saying the constitution mandated this when the presidency is “vacant” – in this case because of an illegitimate election.

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The Lima Group, the multilateral body of Latin American nations plus Canada that came together in 2017 to work for a peaceful end to Venezuela’s crisis, immediately recognized Mr. Guaido as the interim president. The United States, which also immediately recognized Mr. Guaido, offered US$20-million in aid to his interim government. The offer sparked scorn from Mr. Maduro on Friday; addressing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the news conference, he said, “Just $20-million – how cheap you bought this coup.”

Sandra Borda, a political scientist with the University of the Andes in Colombia, said her country’s government and its allies against Mr. Maduro (Colombia has taken in more that two million Venezuelan refugees) are attempting a delicate diplomatic manoeuvre. “The function of the Lima Group is to increase the cost of Maduro staying in power – they are pushing him to negotiate some kind of exit with an amnesty or a bit of dignity," she said in a telephone interview from Bogota. "He is now so isolated from the international community that he might be considering it – but the Chavistas are not the most rational actors.”

However, the diplomatic pressure game is risky, she added. “They have to be very careful not to give Maduro an excuse to be radical" and violently repress protests. Twenty people have been killed at demonstrations in the past three days, according to the United Nations.

The United States will go to the UN Security Council on Saturday to seek its recognition of Mr. Guaido as interim president. Russia opposes the request and says Washington is backing a coup attempt in Venezuela – adding to the geopolitical tension around the country with the world’s largest proved oil reserves.

Mr. Guaido may now seek financial help, either from the United States or an organization such as the International Monetary Fund, predicted Javier Corrales, an expert on Venezuela at Amherst College, in an attempt to demonstrate to Venezuelans that his side is capable of delivering real relief to the humanitarian crisis. The inflation rate in Venezuela passed one million per cent last year.

The next likely target of the pressure campaign is Venezuela’s oil assets, including Citgo Petroleum, the U.S. arm of the state oil company, predicted Michael Penfold, a Venezuelan political economist. Citgo is currently overseen by a Maduro-appointed board. The international recognition of Mr. Guaido is particularly significant given the value of the assets Venezuela has overseas and how dependent the country is on the oil sector, since virtually all other industries have failed, Mr. Penfold said in a telephone interview from Caracas.

The only major player in the Americas that has not recognized Mr. Guaido is Mexico, which appears to be taking the lead on possible negotiations between key figures in the Venezuelan regime and the opposition. The new administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is one of the only leftist governments in the region, and Mr. Maduro attended Mr. Lopez Obrador’s inauguration in December.

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On Friday, the Mexican president said his country could act as an intermediary, "if both sides” requested the help. “We are willing to act as mediators or brokers for dialogue as long as it is called for by the actors in Venezuela – what we are not willing to do is interfere in matters of other countries, imposing a dialogue,” Roberto Vazconcelo, spokesperson for foreign secretary Marcelo Ebrard, told The Globe and Mail. He said Mexico was talking to other parties that have not picked a side in Venezuela, including Spain, Portugal and Uruguay, “to try to figure out a path to try to solve this.” He said there are no negotiations presently under way.

As Mr. Maduro gave his news conference in the presidential palace on Friday, Mr. Guaido spoke to journalists and supporters in a plaza in Caracas – defying the threat of arrest to appear publicly – and said that if he is detained, his supporters should carry on regardless and stage more mass peaceful protests and maintain their demand for new elections. “As the famous phrase goes, ‘You can cut the flower but you cannot prevent spring from coming,’ ” he said.

Prof. Corrales said his detention remains a realistic possibility. “Maduro could still survive, he could repress and get away with it – he could conclude he has nothing to lose and arrest" Mr. Guaido and other key opposition figures, he said.

Prof. Corrales predicted that the opposition is seeking divisions within the regime, and finding others with whom to negotiate; the international community should be sending a similar message to those in Mr. Maduro’s circle who have been blacklisted – that they could face relief of sanctions if they are part of a negotiated solution, he said.

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Irwin Cotler, a former Canadian justice minister who now sits on the Organization of American States panel investigating alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela, said he hopes the Lima Group will try to put further pressure on the military to support Mr. Guaido. One way to do it, he said, is to draw attention to the International Criminal Court’s preliminary investigation into alleged crimes committed in Venezuela under the Maduro regime, and “put the military leadership in Venezuela on notice that they can be held accountable for their crimes should they continue to support Maduro.”

The U.S. government withdrew many of its diplomats from Caracas on Friday, in response to an ultimatum from Mr. Maduro, removing one of the potential flashpoints for conflict.

With a report from Michelle Zilio in Ottawa.

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