Venezuela’s top military envoy to the United States defected from the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Saturday, as the South American nation said the two countries had scaled back their diplomatic missions to skeleton staff.
The diplomatic friction and defection was triggered by U.S. recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Washington, Canada and most Latin American nations said Maduro’s second-term election win was fraudulent.
“Today I speak to the people of Venezuela, and especially to my brothers in the armed forces of the nation, to recognize President Juan Guaido as the only legitimate president,” Colonel Jose Luis Silva said in a video recorded at the embassy in Washington, seated at a desk alongside the Venezuelan flag.
Silva told Reuters in Washington that one consular official in Houston and one in another U.S. city also recognized Guaido, but that he was the only diplomat in Washington he knew of who had taken the step. Reuters was not able to independently confirm other defectors.
‘Don’t mistreat your people’
“The top brass of the military and the executive branch are holding the armed forces hostage. There are many, many who are unhappy,” Silva said. “My message to the armed forces is, ‘Don’t mistreat your people.’ We were given arms to defend the sovereignty of our nation. They never, never trained us to say, ‘This is for you to attack your people, to defend the current government in power.’”
While small rebellions against Maduro have broken out in Venezuela’s armed forces in recent months, there has been no large scale military uprising against him.
Guaido welcomed Silva in a message on Twitter and encouraged others to follow his example. In a tweet, Venezuela’s Defense Ministry called Silva a coward, posting a picture of him emblazoned with the word “traitor” across it in red capital letters.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis called the defection an example of the principle “that the role of the military is to protect constitutional order, not to sustain dictators and repress its own people. Encourage others to do the same.”