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Stakes Rise In Venezuela In The Campaign To Oust Nicolás Maduro As President

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The stakes keep getting higher in Venezuela in the campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro. Today, his challenger, Juan Guaido, appeared at a rally in the capital, Caracas, and reeled off the countries that have recognized him as Venezuela's interim president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: While Guaido was speaking, so was Maduro a few miles across town at a press conference. His message - he's not going anywhere. And NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas now. And, Philip, I want to start with Guido and his gathering. You were there. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Yes. Guaido appeared in a plaza in the heart of the city. It was billed as a press conference, actually, but it became a rally because several thousand supporters showed up. He arrived in a dark suit and tie, looking relaxed. He smiled a lot. He interacted with the crowd who occasionally broke into chants of president, president. And he took some questions from the media.

And two things really stood out. One is that he's raising the pressure in this duel with Maduro. He's called for more open-air meetings across the country tomorrow and Sunday and then a big week of demonstrations next week. He says his campaign is going to stay on the streets until Maduro goes and free and fair elections can be held because he and the U.S. and many, many others say that the presidency is Nicolas Maduro is illegitimate because the election that won him a second term is a fraud. And the other thing that stood out is the emphasis he's placing on nonviolence. He really wants this campaign to be a nonviolent campaign.

CORNISH: Given how Maduro treated the opposition in the past, isn't Guaido at the risk of arrest?

REEVES: Yeah, he is. And he talked about that, saying that if he's arrested, his supporters should carry on with his campaign. And he's also encouraging them to reach out to people who they know in the police or in the army and persuade them to switch sides because, as he puts it, we're the future.

CORNISH: We mentioned Maduro's kind of counter-event. What did he have to say?

REEVES: Well, yes. I mean, Maduro was speaking at the same time to the press and to the media in his presidential palace about five miles away. And, you know, he was behind the barricades, continuing to complain that this is an attempted coup orchestrated by the U.S., calling it a desperate act and the part of an economic war waged by Washington to get Venezuela's oil. That's a very familiar theme with him.

He did say he'd be willing to engage in talks, saying that even if I have to go to these naked, I'm willing to do so. It was a rather compelling moment. But previous talks, remember, with the opposition haven't proved fruitful. And Guaido's indicated that he's not interested in these. His mantra is, Maduro must go, then there's a transitional period under his interim presidency and new elections.

CORNISH: In the meantime, what's the status of the U.S. diplomats whom Maduro says he's expelling?

REEVES: Well, you know, this is a very critical issue here. The nonessential staff and families headed out to the airport this morning in a convoy. But of course staff is staying. Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country on Wednesday when he severed diplomatic relations with Washington. But the U.S. says that that order is invalid because it no longer recognizes him as president. And the deadline set by Maduro comes up on Sunday. And, really, what happens then? You know, it isn't clear. Guaido, meanwhile, who's, remember, declared himself interim president, says - he says that the American diplomats should stay and that the U.S. Embassy should stay open.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.