Nation & World

US recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader as interim president

A demonstrator throws back a tear-gas canister during a protest in the Cotiza neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 21, 2019. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Carlos Becerra.
A demonstrator throws back a tear-gas canister during a protest in the Cotiza neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 21, 2019. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Carlos Becerra.

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday faced the gravest challenge to his authority as the leader of the U.S.-backed opposition claimed the legitimate mantle of leadership, and President Trump and other world leaders promptly recognized him as Venezuela’s interim and rightful head of state.

A defiant Maduro, who assumed power in 2013, responded by announcing a break in “diplomatic and political relations” with the United States, and ordering American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.

The high stakes move set up a potential diplomatic crisis as Washington weighed how to respond to a demand by a leader it nows sees as illegitimate. Juan Guaido, the opposition leader now recognized by Washington as Venezuela’s true interim ruler, called on any diplomats expelled by Maduro to remain.

A senior Trump administration official told reporters that Washington is not rejecting any options, whether political, economic or even military.

“When we say all options are on the table, it means all options,” the official said.

Later, Trump was pointedly asked whether military force was being considered.

“We’re not considering anything, but all options on the table,” he said. “All options, always, all options are on the table.”

As the international campaign against him grew, Maduro, the anointed successor of socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, was confronting a new protagonist in the form of Guaido. Before a cheering throng, the 35-year-old industrial engineer and recently named head of the country’s National Assembly, took the long-awaited step of declaring himself the nation’s “president in charge.”

“We will stay on the street until Venezuela is liberated!” Guaido told the crowd in Caracas.

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The dramatic developments came as anti-Maduro protests drew hundreds of thousands of people into Venezuelan streets in what the newly re-energized opposition called a sustained campaign to drive Maduro from office. After months of mounting U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, the move by the Trump administration to immediately shift recognition to Guaido amounted to the strongest statement so far against what it called a “disastrous dictatorship.” Yet the U.S. didn’t outline its next concrete steps.

In a statement, Trump, whose hard stance on Venezuela has been championed by leading Florida Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio, called on other governments to follow the U.S. move.

“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump wrote. “I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”

Maduro’s claim to power is based on elections last year that were internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab and were meant to maintain his grip on the nation at a time when its people are suffering a massive humanitarian crisis. Mismanagement, corruption and failed socialist policies have broken the oil-producing nation, spreading hyperinflation, hunger and disease. The government has used repression, torture and exile to keep dissidents in line.

Though stripped of its power by Maduro, the National Assembly headed by Guaido is widely acknowledged internationally as Venezuela’s last democratic institution. Even before Guaido’s announcement, he had been recognized by Brazil and the head of the Organization of American States as Venezuela’s rightful leader. On Wednesday, a list of other countries, including Colombia, Chile and Paraguay also recognized Guaido.

“This changes the game in Venezuela,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “It’s an inflection point that turns the Maduro regime into an international pariah and gives an immediate boost to Guaido’s claims under the Venezuelan constitution. But it is not without risk, either by Guaido or the Trump administration. Maduro will never accede to this course or willingly give up power, and Guiado’s actions will not give Maduro the option to ignore him.”

Yet the U.S. administration had appeared to be waiting to see how Maduro reacted before taking its next step. Before Maduro’s declaration of a break in ties, a senior administration official, briefing reporters anonymously under rules imposed by the White House, made no mention of expelling diplomats, or diverting frozen assets to institutions chosen by Guaido. Asked directly whether an oil embargo is imminent, the official replied, “When we say all options on the table, it means all options.”

In ordering U.S. diplomats out of Venezuela, Maduro decried past American intervention in Latin America and assailed an alleged nefarious plot against him by the “Gringo empire.”

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Guaido still faces a formidable security apparatus at Maduro’s disposal, and experts warned that he could yet survive this challenge as he has others in the past. Guaido’s bold move, meanwhile, put him at risk of arrest or worse.

“These democratic tools tend not to work as much in Venezuela because of government repression,” said Russ Dallen, a Florida-based managing partner at the brokerage Caracas Capital Markets. “I hate to be a Debbie downer, but if marches were enough to depose him, they would have done it many times before.”

It remained unclear whether Maduro’s move to break diplomatic ties would also mean a halt in sales of Venezuelan oil to its largest cash-paying customer: the United States. Such a move has been studied by the Trump administration, which hasn’t followed through on threats to impose an embargo, in part out of fear of hurting the Venezuelan people as well as U.S. refineries dependent on Venezuelan oil shipments.

Dallen said the Trump administration in recent days has advised U.S.-based refineries of possible oil sanctions against Caracas, a move that would not damage the U.S. oil sector nearly as much as it would have years ago. Venezuela’s oil production has collapsed under Maduro; it currently sells around 500,000 barrels per day to the United States, or about half the volume of a decade ago.

The U.S. could potentially make up for banned Venezuelan oil by sourcing more from countries such as Mexico and Colombia. Venezuela — which produces a cheaper, sludgy heavy crude — could divert U.S.-bound shipments to countries like India, though it would likely receive lower profits because of higher transportation costs.

Amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Caracas, the U.S.-backed opposition on Wednesday filled the streets with the largest anti-government protests since 2017, when hundreds of thousands sought Maduro’s departure. That movement was crushed after official repression led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

Overnight, the smaller-scale protests that began Monday started to spread, with a throng of demonstrators in Bolivar state setting alight a statue of Chavez, the leftist firebrand who established Venezuela’s socialist state and anointed Maduro as his successor before dying of cancer.

By midday Wednesday, at least one protester was reported dead.

At least 47 people have been detained since Monday, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit legal firm that tracks and defends political prisoners.

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As people started to gather on a rainy Caracas morning, protests in some areas were being dispersed by security forces with tear gas. Nevertheless, crowds surged into the hundreds of thousands. In eastern Caracas, people yelled: “Who are we? Venezuela. What do we want? Freedom.”

Gabriela Aristimuno, a 40-year-old lawyer, escaped tear gas in western Caracas and quickly joined the crowd in the east. “Fear? No, nothing. Freedom and my children are all I care about,” she said. “I want everything I had before, before all this tragedy.”

The actions against Maduro took place as U.S. officials sought to undermine him in recent days. In a video, Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday called Maduro a “dictator with no legitimate claim to power” and backed the opposition protests as “a call for freedom.” Coming on the heels of a series of U.S. sanctions, the move prompted Maduro late Tuesday to order a “revision” of diplomatic ties with the United States.

Maduro responded late Tuesday, saying: “Never before has an official of such high rank gone out in the name of his government to say the Venezuelan opposition should overthrow the government.”

Maduro threatened diplomatic action against the United States “within hours.” On Wednesday, however, Maduro canceled two planned appearances before addressing a crowd outside the presidential palace later in the afternoon to announce his break with Washington.

“No one gives up here,” Maduro said. “We’re going to fight.”

The two nations already maintain limited diplomatic relations. Although they both have operating embassies in each other’s capital, they have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.

Still, experts say Maduro’s move to sever diplomatic relations with Washington is risky. Such a move could give the Trump administration the trigger it has been looking for to take harsher steps, including freezing remaining Venezuelan government accounts and assets. A clean cut in diplomatic relations could also put at risk the Maduro administration’s control of Citgo, the U.S.-based oil firm owned by the Venezuelan government.

Yet taking such a radical step could also help Maduro mobilize Venezuelans against a common enemy to the north.

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The official state television channel on Wednesday showed images of pro-Maduro crowds and urged viewers to join a counterprotest. “The streets belong to Chavismo,” the narrator said, referring to the government’s left-wing ideology and encouraging people to use that as a hashtag on Twitter.

At the pro-government demonstration, people wore red caps and listened to Maduro and Chavez campaign songs. “Yesterday there was an insolent call by the United States. Today we have to go out to defend the revolution,” said Guillermo Blanco, an employee of Venezuela’s state oil company. “We don’t take orders from anyone.”

Backed by Russia, China and Cuba, Maduro has ordered the arrest, torture and exile of scores of opposition politicians. One day after Maduro’s swearing-in, however, Guaido openly challenged his rule, saying he would be willing to become interim president if he won the support of the military, foreign powers and the people.

Since then, thousands of desperate Venezuelans have been showing up in cities across the nation to hear Guaido’s speeches. Using a positive message, Guaido, who was briefly detained by the intelligence police on Jan. 14, has brought a new sense of hope to a disillusioned support base.

In recent days, Washington had already suggested its backing of Guaido, who activated charters in Venezuela’s constitution to claim power in the event of a “usurper” in office. He has sought to take a different approach than past opposition leaders, who have been accused of infighting and mismanagement. For instance, he has offered broad amnesty to the military for past repression and crimes if they turned on Maduro.

The military’s loyalty remains key to Maduro’s survival. A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post this month that Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, has privately told Maduro that he should step aside. And thousands of police and military rank and file have deserted their posts. But outward signs of division within the military have been limited.

Nevertheless, there are growing indications of cracks. On Monday, dozens of Venezuelan National Guard personnel stole arms from two Caracas units, kidnapped four officials and recorded themselves in a northern slum urging people to join them in rebellion. The videos circulated on social media, but shortly afterward, the government announced the arrests of 27 dissenting officials.

That same day, hundreds of residents took to the streets as protests broke out in western slums across Caracas in the afternoon, continuing well past midnight.

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On Tuesday night, spontaneous protests also erupted in more than 60 neighborhoods across the capital and in interior states. Many of the demonstrations were repressed by security forces with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets.

In the state of Bolivar, protesters burned the statue of late leader Chavez, and footage of the incident went viral on social media. In a western Caracas slum, one 16-year-old was reported dead after being shot at a demonstration, according to exiled lawmaker and doctor Jose Manuel Olivares, who said he received the information from the hospital that treated the boy.

The demonstrations led some observers to suggest that the poorest sectors of the capital could join the opposition’s traditional upper-class base in Wednesday’s protests — something that has rarely happened in the past.

“I’m tired,” said Gladys Ibarra, a 40-year-old informal merchant who was protesting in a northwestern Caracas slum. “I’m tired of not having water, energy. Tired of waking up at dawn trying to find gas to cook.”

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Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro, Morello from Washington. Rachelle Krygier contributed from Miami, and John Hudson contributed from Washington.

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