Pope Francis warns of Venezuela bloodbath as country braces for more protests

The pontiff called for a 'just and peaceful' solution to the crisis, but refused to take sides

Demonstrators wave Venezuelan flags while listening to Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly, not pictured, during a pro-opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela minutes after the opposition leader declared himself the head of state, in the U.S.'s most provocative move yet against the leftist regime of President Nicolas Maduro. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg
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Pope Francis on Sunday said he is “terrified of a bloodbath” in Venezuela, as more protests are expected on Wednesday.

The pontiff told reporters on their way home from Panama that he supports the entire Venezuelan population, but that picking sides would go against his role as a pastor.

"If I were to enter and say 'do this' to those countries, or to other countries, I would put myself in a role that I do not know. It would be a pastoral imprudence on my part and would do damage," he said.

Francis called for a "just and peaceful" solution to the crisis in Venezuela that respects human rights and avoids suffering. But he did not say if the Holy See would recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido in his claim for the presidency over Socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

While the Pontiff spoke in front of Panama’s youngsters on World Youth Day this week, neighbouring Venezuela was being battered by violent protests. Demonstrations followed the “swearing in” of opposition leader Mr Guaido as president on January 23.

Self-proclaimed leader Mr Guaido took advantage of a major street demonstration last week to proclaim himself as the country’s rightful leader, accusing Mr Maduro of usurping power following a disputed re-election in 2018.

But anger at the 56-year-old dictator has been boiling over since he came to power in 2013 following the death of Hugo Chavez. Over the past six years, civilian dissent has manifested itself in a series of regular protests. Many of them turned violent and resulted in the death of civilians.

The country has been teetering on the edge of collapse for years, but government mismanagement and a huge fall in oil prices in 2014 pushed it down a precipice. Venezuela’s economy collapsed, along with basic services, food supplies and health care system. The poor became poorer, while the rich fled to neighbouring countries, causing a troubling exodus of the country's skilled and educated workers.

Mr Maduro says his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against the country since 2017. He has promised to stay in office, backed by Russia and China, who have bankrolled his government and fought off efforts to have his government disavowed by the United Nations.

Despite his usual bravado, "Maduro really does give off an air of desperation now," founder of Caracas Chronicles Francisco Toro told The National.

“Stories that he’s brought in several dozen Russian former soldiers to serve as bodyguards gives you a sense of his paranoia now,” explained Mr Toro. “He’s trusting mercenaries to protect him over his own military.”

“They want our armed forces to throw a coup,” Mr Maduro told the troops in remarks broadcast on state television. “Well, we’re going to prepare our weapons so no one dares to think of touching our sacred land.”

“I suspect the most likely scenario is the military tries to replace Maduro with a more acceptable pro-regime figure,” said Mr Toro.

Countries around the world joined the Venezuelan opposition coalition in describing the re-election last year as a fraud. So far 31 states have backed Mr Guaido in his undertaking, including the United States.

Mr Maduro was referred to by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday as the country’s “former president”. The US, said Mr Pompeo, would no longer consider him to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the US or declare diplomats as persona non grata.

“We call on the Venezuelan military and security forces to continue protecting the welfare and well-being of all Venezuelans,” said Mr Pompeo.

But the military’s lower ranks have also found themselves caught in the middle of the crisis.

According to a Human Rights Watch report released this month, intelligence agents have detained and tortured members of the military suspected of fomenting rebellion. In some cases, they are also going after their families or other civilians when they can’t find the suspects, according to HRW Senior Americas Researcher Tamara Taraciuk Broner.

It's the first time the government of President Nicolas Maduro suppresses, murders and tortures protesters with such fervour.

Activists backing National Assembly leader Mr Guaido walked the streets of Caracas on Sunday, passing out copies of a measure that promises amnesty against corruption or abuse allegations to any member who defects. Some in uniform seemed willing to receive the documents; others burned theirs.

"No one feels safe at the moment," said Milagros, a Venezuelan journalist based in Caracas, who asked that her real name not be used for security reasons. "It's the first time the government of President Nicolas Maduro suppresses, murders and tortures protesters with such fervour" she told The National.

Although the swearing in of Mr Guaido and the backing of major heads of state have emboldened the country's opposition, the uprising could also prove a double-edged sword. If the opposition loses momentum, said Milagros, the dictatorship could find itself revitalised. This in turn could lead to the strengthening of Mr Maduro's power. "If that happens, we'll all be at risk of coming under attack by the government."