CARACAS: Venezuela's US-backed opposition leader Juan Guaido prepared on Friday (Feb 1) to crank up the pressure on embattled President Nicolas Maduro with a massive weekend protest to push for early elections as Washington warned the socialist leader had run out of time for negotiations.
Major European countries have set a weekend deadline for Maduro to call such elections or they will join the United States in recognising Guaido, the speaker of the national assembly, as Venezuela's interim president.
"Nicolas Maduro will do well not to test the resolve of the United States of America. Maduro's tyranny must end and must end now," US Vice President Mike Pence warned at a rally of Venezuelan exiles in Miami.
Saturday's march will coincide with the ruling Socialist party's celebration of the 20th anniversary of the rise to power of Hugo Chavez, Maduro's deceased predecessor.
In a letter to the presidents of Mexico and Uruguay published Friday, Guaido ruled out any negotiations with Maduro unless they "start the transition process, culminating in the holding of free elections."
The tone was echoed by Pence in Miami.
"Let me be very clear: this is no time for dialogue. This is time for action," the vice president said. "The time has come to end Maduro's dictatorship once and for all."
Pence also took aim at Maduro's ally Cuba, for its "malign influence" in Venezuela and in leftist President Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua. "The time has come to liberate Venezuela from Cuba," he said.
Mexico's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez have jointly called a conference in Montevideo next Thursday for "neutral" countries to discuss the crisis.
Previous negotiations all had the same "unsatisfactory result," Guaido wrote. "The dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has not changed its position. They have mocked the Venezuelan people to their face."
Guaido called Saturday's rally to coincide with one convened by government supporters to mark the late Chavez's assumption of office as Venezuela's president February 2, 1999 at the head of a socialist movement.
"We must all take to the streets of Venezuela and the world with a clear goal: to accompany the ultimatum given by members of the European Union," Guaido said Thursday.
"We are going to stage the biggest march in the history of Venezuela and our continent," he added.
In a speech at Caracas university, he said elite security forces went to his home to threaten his family, blaming the government of Maduro.
The move heightened fears for the security of the 35-year-old National Assembly leader, who declared himself acting president last week in a bold challenge to Maduro's authority.
Earlier, European Parliament lawmakers recognised Guaido as the acting head of state - another step forward in his bid to force out the socialist leader who has presided over the oil-rich country's economic collapse.
Four major European powers - Britain, France, Germany and Spain - have said they will do so if Maduro fails to call presidential elections by the weekend.
The last 10 days of political upheaval have exacerbated the general disarray in Venezuela, which has the world's largest proven oil reserves but has suffered hyperinflation and shortages of basic necessities.
The UN says 2.3 million have fled the country, unleashing a migration crisis in South America.
The dramatic turn against Maduro's leftist regime culminated quickly, but it came after weeks of behind-the-scenes diplomacy including a hushed meeting in Washington with Guaido, who was quickly recognised by Washington as Venezuela's president.
However, Venezuela's Supreme Court - dominated by regime loyalists - has frozen his assets and ordered him not to leave the country.
Several opposition leaders have been jailed in recent years as Maduro cracked down on growing dissent in the Latin American country.
During his speech, Guaido presented the broad outlines of a rescue plan for a country in economic meltdown.
Part of the plan unveiled by the opposition leader and his economic adviser Jose Guerra is to end exchange controls in force since 2003 and renegotiate Venezuela's estimated $150 billion debt.
Guaido wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Wednesday that "clandestine meetings" had been held with members of the armed forces and security forces, who he is trying to woo with an amnesty offer.
But Guaido's moves to court the military are fraught with risk. Last week fewer than 30 soldiers rose up against Maduro, precipitating protests that, according to the United Nations, ended with more than 40 dead and hundreds detained.
So far, the military high command has remained loyal to Maduro.