World / Politics

Maduro rival claims Venezuela's presidency; neighbors recognize Guaido as interim president

AP, AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Numerous governments in the Western Hemisphere quickly recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido after he declared himself the interim president of his crisis-torn country Wednesday.

The United States and all but one member of the Lima Group of regional nations threw their support behind Guaido after he declared himself leader in a speech before masses of anti-government demonstrators.

At a rally in eastern Caracas that drew hunreds of thousands, Guaido accused President Nicolas Maduro of usurping power. He promised to create a transitional government that would help the country escape its economic collapse. “I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end to the usurpation,” Guaido, the head of the opposition-run legislature, told the crowd.

Guaido’s declaration takes Venezuela into uncharted territory, with the possibility of the opposition now running a parallel government that is recognized abroad as legitimate but lacks control over state functions.

In a potent symbol of Venezuelan anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez. They brokeit in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

Maduro took power in 2013 after Chavez, his mentor, died. As oil prices sank and revenues dried up, the social welfare programs designed by Chavez faltered. Venezuela spiraled into its worst-ever economic crisis, with inflation forecast to reach 10 million percent this year.

But Maduro nevertheless started a second term on Jan. 10, following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a sham.

The avalanche of support for Guaido dramatically raised the stakes in Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that has become deeply impoverished under Maduro.

Maduro has clung to power through the support of the military and is an ally of Russia, which last month sent two nuclear-capable bombers to the country to participate in a military drill.

The declaration by the Lima Group, which has been vocal in denouncing Maduro, was signed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru. Mexico was the only member to not sign.

The group said it supported the beginning of the process of a democratic transition in Venezuela following its constitution with aim of carrying out new elections as soon as possible. It also condemned acts of violence in Venezuela and made a call for peace.

U.S. President Donald Trump called on Maduro to resign and said the U.S. would use the “full weight” of its economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.

The U.S. also said it stood ready to use “all options” if Maduro tries to quash the opposition — an implied threat of military force.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the Venezuelan military to protect “the welfare and well-being of all Venezuelan citizens,” along with U.S. citizens in Venezuela. Pompeo said the United States would take “appropriate actions” against anyone who endangered the safety of U.S. personnel.

Maduro then cut off diplomatic relations with the U.S., the largest importer of Venezuelan oil, and announced that American diplomats had 72 hours to leave his country. He also heaped much of the blame for developments on U.S. imperialism and Colombia’s “oligarchy.”

“Get out! Leave Venezuela. Here we have dignity, damn it,” Maduro said.

Guaido tweeted in response that, under him, Venezuela wants countries “to maintain their diplomatic presence in our country.”

And the U.S. State Department said “former president Maduro” did not have the authority to sever relations.

Venezuelans have been suffering from an economic and governance crisis that has led millions to flee hyperinflation and severe shortages of food and medicine.

Paraguay was the first regional country to express support for Guaido after he took an oath before thousands of supporters.

“Count on us to embrace freedom and democracy again,” Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez said on Twitter.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said Latin America’s largest nation also would support the 35-year-old lawmaker “so that peace and democracy return to Venezuela.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed her country’s “full support” for Guaido, adding, “It’s an important day for Venezuela and I’m grateful for the solidarity of the Lima Group in speaking out on this.”

The European Union did not join the countries lining up behind Guaido but called for “free and credible elections.”

Cuba, however, sprang to the defense of its socialist ally, expressing “solidarity” with Maduro while Mexico extended lukewarm support to him.

Guaido has said it is his right under Venezuela’s constitution to take over the presidency until new elections can be called.

But not everyone backed his bold move.

Bolivian President Evo Morales condemned what he called an imperialist attack. “Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and Nicolas Maduro, in these decisive hours when the claws of imperialism are once again trying to deal a death blow on democracy and self-determination on the peoples of South America,” Morales tweeted. “We will not be the backyard of the U.S. again.”

A spokesman for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Mexico continued to recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president.

“We maintain our position of neutrality in the Venezuelan conflict,” Jesus Ramirez Cuevas told Mexico’s Milenio news television channel. “The Mexican government is analyzing the situation in Venezuela. Until now, there is no change in its diplomatic relations with that country nor with its government.”

Colombian President Ivan Duque said his nation would accompany Guaido “in this process of transition toward democracy so that the Venezuelan people can free themselves from the dictatorship.”