Donald Trump dramatically recognized Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido as ‘interim president’ Wednesday, shortly after the 35-year-old took an oath of office in front of demonstrators in the capital Caracas calling on president Nicolas Maduro to quit.
‘The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime,’ Trump tweeted.
‘Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela.’
At the White House after the announcement, Trump was asked about the use of U.S. military force and said: ‘We’re not considering anything but all options are on the table.’
The White House said it would use the ‘full weight’ of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy while senior officials suggested oil sanctions could come as early as this week.
In retaliation for his opponent being recognized, Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, saying he was cutting off diplomatic relations – and accused the U.S. of orchestrating a coup.
Taking power? Juan Guaido, leader of the Venezuelan congress, said he was demanding executive powers and declaring himself interim president
Dramatic move: The White House tweeted its recognition of the opposition leader minutes after he took a symbolic oath in front of massed demonstrators
Defiant: Nicolas Maduro appeared on the balcony of the Caracas presidential palace dressed in red with his wife Cilia Flores to his right to say he will stay in power
Symbolic move: Juan Guaido was ‘sworn in’ as ‘acting president’, taking the oath then holding the country’s flag and a picture of Simon Bolivar, who liberated it from Spanish rule, in front of demonstrators in the east of Caracas
Get in: Opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president in front of a mass of demonstrators and was then surrounded by celebrating crowds
Masses: Huge demonstrations in Caracas continued Wednesday as supporters of the opposition leader continued to call for Nicolas Maduro to relinquish power
The dramatic move by Trump came after the head of the opposition-controlled congress took a symbolic oath before God to assume executive powers he says are his right under Venezuela’s constitution and to take over the presidency until new elections can be called.
Guaido said he was taking the politically-risky step just two weeks after Maduro took his own oath to a second, six-year term confident that it was the only way to rescue Venezuela from ‘dictatorship’ and restore constitutional order.
‘We know that this will have consequences,’ Guaido, 35, told the cheering crowd standing before a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms.
‘To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans,’ he shouted.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Maduro to step aside and urged the country’s military to support efforts to restore democracy.
In a statement, Pompeo said Washington would support opposition leader Guaido as he establishes a transitional government and prepares the country for elections.
‘The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolas Maduro’s disastrous dictatorship,’ Pompeo said. ‘We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people.’
A senior administration official told reporters on a conference call: ‘If Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence – if they choose to harm any of the national assembly members or any of the other duly legitimate officials of the government of Venezuela – all options are on the table for the United States in regards to actions to be taken.’
The United States and all but one member of the Lima Group of regional nations threw their support behind Guaido after he declared himself interim president in a defiant speech before masses of anti-government demonstrators.
The declaration by the Lima Group, which has been vocal in denouncing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, was signed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru. Mexico was the only member to not sign.
It said it saw Maduro as president ‘for the time being’, a limited endorsement which will do little to prop up his case, while in Russia lawmakers accused the U.S. – like Maduro did – of being behind a ‘coup.’
But Guaido’s declaration takes Venezuela into uncharted territory, with the possibility of the opposition now running a parallel government recognized abroad as legitimate but without control over state functions.
In a televised broadcast from the presidential palace, Maduro accused the opposition of seeking to stage a coup with the support of the United States, which he said was seeking to govern Venezuela from Washington.
‘We’ve had enough interventionism, here we have dignity, damn it! Here is a people willing to defend this land,’ said Maduro, flanked by top Socialist Party leaders, although the defense minister and members of the military high command were absent.
Any change of government will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. So far, they have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.
The office of Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino did not answer a phone call seeking comment.
Maduro started a second term on Jan. 10 following a widely-boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a sham.
Venezuela’s constitution says if the presidency is determined to be vacant, new elections should be called in 30 days and that the head of congress should assume the presidency in the meantime.
However, the pro-government Supreme Court has ruled that all actions taken by congress are null and void and Maduro’s government has previously accused Guaido of staging a coup and threatened him with jail.
Nothing off limits: At the White House Trump was asked about use of the military and said ‘all options are on the table.’
Guaido’s political mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested in 2014, one of dozens of opposition activists and leaders the government jailed for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017.
The Trump administration could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week, according to sources. The South American country has the largest crude reserves in the world and is a major supplier to U.S. refiners, though output is hovering near 70-year lows and reaction in the oil markets was muted on Wednesday.
Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis, with hyperinflation forecast to reach 10 million percent this year. Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled abroad over the past five years to escape widespread shortages of food and medicine.
In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s heir. They broke the statue in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.
‘We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,’ said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman on a march in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.
On bond markets, Venezuela’s benchmark 2027 bond was trading above 31 cents on the dollar for the first time since May 2018, up from 22.25 cents just two weeks ago.
The declaration of Guaido as interim president came as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets Wednesday accusing embattled Maduro of usurping power and demand he step down as the country reels from a crushing economic crisis forcing millions to flee or go hungry.
Large crowds of protesters gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting ‘Get out Maduro!’ in what was the largest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.
Pro-government demonstrators dressed in red in support of Maduro were also marching in the capital, at times crossing paths with opposition protesters and shouting ‘sell outs’ and ‘traitors.’
National guardsmen launched tear gas at anti-government protesters in the middle-class neighborhood of El Paraiso but for the most part the marches continued without conflict.
‘Join us!’ the protesters cried out to a line of officers wearing helmets and carrying shields. ‘You are also living this crisis!’
The protests were called to coincide with an historic date for Venezuelans – the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
‘The democratic forces are here advancing,’ opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said as she marched. ‘Not so that Maduro changes but so that he leaves.’
The demonstration comes after a whirlwind week that saw an uprising by a tiny military unit put down by government forces, fires set during protests in poor neighborhoods and the brief detention by security forces of Guaido, the newly installed head of the opposition-controlled congress.
Over the last two nights, Venezuelans angry over their country’s spiraling hyperinflation, and food and medical shortages have gathered in the streets banging pots and pans and setting up barricades in protest.
In the city of San Felix, residents set fire to a statue of Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
In the southern city of Ciudad Bolivar, a 30-year-old worker, Carlos Olivares, was killed when four unidentified men descended from a beige Jeep and fired upon a crowd that was looting a store.
Two more unidentified people were also killed, according to a police report of the incident, while two were injured.
For much of the past two years, following a deadly crackdown on the 2017 protests and the failure of negotiations ahead of last May’s boycotted presidential election, the coalition of opposition parties has been badly divided over strategy and other differences as millions of desperate Venezuelans fled the country’s hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.
But buoyed by unprecedented international criticism of Maduro, anti-government forces have put aside their infighting and are projecting a united front.
Guaido, who is taking the reins from a long list of better-known predecessors who have been exiled, outlawed or jailed, was dragged from an SUV just over a week ago by intelligence agents but was quickly released amid an international outcry.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s protests, the defiant young lawmaker crisscrossed Caracas attending outdoor assemblies known as ‘Open Cabildos’ – for the revolutionary citizen councils held against Spanish colonial rule – pumping up crowds by arguing that Maduro must go for democracy to be restored.
Opposition: A demonstrator with a poster board showing the prices of basic food is one of tens of thousands who have turn out against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas
Time to go: Opposition members shouting slogans against Maduro have been part of re-invigorated opposition hoping to persuade the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind Maduro’s government
Grim reality: Carmen Marcano, a Cotiza neighborhood resident, shows her wounds caused by rubber bullets fired by Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guardsmen during a protest Tuesday
‘We are tired of this disaster,’ he said Monday from the roof of a college building. ‘We know this isn’t a fight of a single day but one that requires lots of resistance.’
An enthusiastic crowd of students answered with shouts of ‘Freedom!’
Driving the crisis was Maduro’s decision to ignore international opposition and take the presidential oath on Jan. 10 for a second term widely considered illegitimate after his main opponents were banned from running against him.
Guaido has been targeting his message to Venezuela’s military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes.
Maduro, who lacks the military pedigree of his mentor, Chavez, has sought to shore up support from the armed forces by doling out key posts to top generals, including heading the PDVSA oil monopoly that is the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s export earnings.
He has also been playing commander in chief, appearing last week at a military command meeting wearing camouflage fatigues and receiving the blessing of the defense minister, Gen. Vladimir Padrino Lopez.
But beyond the public displays of loyalty from the top brass, a number of cracks have started to appear.
On Monday, Venezuelans awoke to news that a few dozen national guardsmen had taken captive a loyalist officer and seized a stockpile of assault rifles in a pre-dawn raid.
The government quickly quelled the uprising, but residents in a nearby slum took to the streets to show their support for the mutineers by burning cars and throwing stones at security forces, who fired back with tear gas.
Distubrances continued into Tuesday, with small pockets of unrest in a few working-class neighborhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support. More violence was reported Tuesday night.
What side will they take? A heckler beside a group of Bolivarian National Guardsmen blocking a protest march against Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. The military have so far remained behind him but cracks are beginning to show
‘People are tired of so much misery,’ said Carmen Marcano, holding up her shirt to show seven buckshot wounds suffered during the clashes in the Cotiza slum next to where the rebellious guardsmen were captured.
Retired Maj. Gen. Cliver Alcala, a one-time aide to Chavez and now in exile, said the opposition’s newfound momentum has reverberated with the military’s lower ranks, many of whom are suffering the same hardships as regular Venezuelan families.
‘I am absolutely certain that right now, especially younger troops are asking themselves whether Maduro is their commander in chief or a usurper,’ Alcala said.
‘As we say in the barracks, hunger is the only thing that can devour fear of the government.’
Maduro has accused the opposition of inciting violence with the aim of provoking a bloodbath. Top socialist leaders have threatened to unleash on demonstrators menacing motorcycle gangs of pro-government die-hards known as ‘colectivos.’
‘I demand the full rigor of the law against the fascists,’ Maduro said Tuesday night, blaming what he called ‘terrorists’ allegedly linked to Guaido’s Popular Will party for a fire at a cultural center named for a pro-government lawmaker murdered in 2014.
He also accused U.S. Vice President Mike Pence of trying to foment unrest after Pence released a video pledging support, in Spanish, for the planned demonstrations.
Though intimidation has worked for the government in the past, it may not this time, said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political analyst.
Discontent now appears to be more widespread and the ranks of security forces and government-allied groups have been thinned by the mass exodus of mostly young Venezuelans, he said.
‘The government is resorting to its old tricks, but the people no longer believe them,’ Pantoulas said.