March 16, 2019 / 7:54 PM / 9 days ago

Venezuela's Guaido launches national tour in 'new phase' to oust Maduro

VALENCIA, Venezuela, March 16 (Reuters) - Venezuelan opposition leader and National Assembly head Juan Guaido said on Saturday he was launching a “new phase” in his push to oust President Nicolas Maduro, pledging to travel across the country before “reclaiming” the presidential palace.

Guaido, who invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, saying Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate, called on thousands of supporters to stay committed to what he dubbed “Operation Freedom.”

“Very soon, when we have visited and organized every inch ... we will go to Miraflores and reclaim what belongs to the Venezuelan people,” Guaido said, referring to the palace, in a speech in the industrial city of Valencia 176 km (109 miles) west of Caracas.

Most Western countries, including the United States, have recognized Guaido as the OPEC nation’s legitimate head of state and called on Maduro to step aside. But Maduro, a socialist who says he is the victim of an attempted U.S.-led coup, retains the support of the armed forces and control of state functions.

Guaido’s campaign until now has mostly focused on mobilizing supporters in the capital Caracas, where power has largely been restored following a nearly weeklong blackout that paralyzed a country already suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse and chronic shortages of food and medicine.

But the restoration of basic services has been slower in the country’s interior. In sweltering Maracaibo, the second-largest city, prolonged power outages led to the looting of shops and factories, and many merchants demanded foreign currency for purchases while electronic payment systems were down.

“I am certain we will move forward,” said hairdresser Irasai Torres, 60, who attended Guaido’s speech in Valencia, which has been hard-hit by factory closures and the departure of foreign firms. “My life is at a crossroads - we never have water, electricity has been going out for years, and we need to wait in line for food. We do not deserve this.”

Maduro has blamed a U.S. cyberattack for the outage, and this week the country’s chief prosecutor asked the Supreme Court to probe Guaido for alleged involvement in “sabotage” of the country’s electricity system. But local electrical engineers told Reuters the blackout was the result of years of lack of maintenance. (Additional reporting by Corina Pons in Caracas; Writing by Luc Cohen; Editing by Richard Chang)

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