Under pressure over video, Venezuela's Guaido says met officials

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido said on Saturday he had met with government officials to convince them of the need for new elections, after a lawmaker said a meeting took place this week.

Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a rally with members of the Venezuela's National Assembly regarding an amnesty law project for members of the military, in Caracas, Venezuela, January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

In a television interview earlier in the week, Guaido appeared to dodge a question about whether he had met with Diosdado Cabello, a senior lawmaker and one of the most prominent figures in President Nicolas Maduro’s Socialist Party.

Guaido, 35, declared himself interim president on Wednesday after Maduro was sworn in for a second term. Maduro was re-elected in May in a race that was tainted by widespread allegations of fraud. Leading opposition figures were not allowed to stand in the election.

The United States, Canada and a string of Latin American countries recognized Guaido in quick succession.

A video the government says is evidence of the encounter showed Cabello and another top Maduro official, Freddy Bernal, followed into a hotel by several well known opposition lawmakers along with a person wearing a baseball cap and gray hoody whom the government says is Guaido.

The video triggered a Twitter trend under the tag #guaidochallenge, with users posting photos of themselves, friends and even pets wearing caps and hoodies to show that it could have been anyone in the footage.

However, at a political rally on Saturday, Cabello said he had recordings of the conversation in the meeting, saying Guaido had asked him to support new elections. Cabello said the only election he would back would be for the National Assembly, which Guaido heads.

In Caracas, Guaido told a small crowd of supporters that he had indeed met with officials, although he didn’t specify who or when. He said he was interested in talking to anybody, civilian or military, who would support ending what he calls Maduro’s “usurpation” and back a transition government and free elections.

He added that he was not worried about more details of the meeting coming out.

“I’m ready - a message for Freddy and Diosdado - I said it yesterday and will repeat it today, everybody who wants to end the usurpation (and backs the) government of transition and free elections, is welcome to discuss it.”

Guaido’s goal as he tries to consolidate his parallel government, which has international support but no control of the state, is to win over defectors by promising an amnesty policy that would let soldiers, police and civilians take part in public life after a transition, without punishment.

He had one high-profile success on Saturday, when Venezuela’s top military diplomat to the United States, Colonel Jose Luis Silva, recognized the young leader and broke with Maduro.

Reporting by Mayela Armas; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Sandra Maler