Trump recognises Venezuela opposition leader Guaido as interim president
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US President Donald Trump on Wednesday recognised Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country's interim president shortly after the National Assembly head declared himself “acting president”.
Trump described hard-left President Nicolas Maduro as "illegitimate" and said the National Assembly, headed by Guaido, is "the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people".
The US president's support for Guaido came shortly after the opposition leader declared himself "acting president" during a mass demonstration against Maduro.
Trump noted that the National Assembly had declared Maduro "illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant".
"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," he said.
Trump urged other countries to follow his lead and promised to "use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy".
Minutes later, a Canadian government official told Reuters that Canada also plans to recognise Guaido as Venezuela’s new interim president.
The head of the Organization of American States also on Wednesday recognised Venezuela's National Assembly leader as the country's acting president.
"Our congratulations to @jguaido as acting President of #Venezuela. You have all our recognition to launch the return of democracy to the country," OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said in a tweet.
Nuestras felicitaciones a @jguaido como Presidente encargado de #Venezuela. Tiene todo nuestro reconocimiento para impulsar el retorno del país a la democracia #23Ene #OEAconVzla pic.twitter.com/AWdjVHJtZjLuis Almagro (@Almagro_OEA2015) January 23, 2019
Maduro gives US diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela
Responding to Trump’s announcement, Maduro said he was breaking diplomatic relations with the US.
Speaking to supporters outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, socialist leader Maduro said he would give US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave Venezuela, which is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.
The US State Department said, however, that as it does not recognise Maduro as leader, he had no authority to sever diplomatic ties.
"The United States maintains diplomatic relations with Venezuela and will conduct our relations with Venezuela through the government of interim President Guaido, who has invited our mission to remain in Venezuela," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
The governments of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and Paraguay also declared their support for Guaido on Wednesday.
Members of the Lima Group regional bloc later issued a joint statement endorsing Guaido as interim president.
The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime. Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela. https://t.co/WItWPiG9jKDonald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) 23 January 2019
Mexico, which has maintained a principle of non-intervention under leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was not among the letter's signatories, however, saying it would not take sides while branding support for Guaido a violation of sovereignty.
Regional allies Cuba and Bolivia made clear their continued support for Maduro, with Bolivian president Evo Morales condemning what he called the "claws of imperialism" interfering in Latin American politics.
The European Union, meanwhile, called for "free and credible elections" to be held in the country.
"The people of Venezuela have massively called for democracy and the possibility to freely determine their own destiny," the EU's diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on behalf of the 28-member bloc.
"These voices cannot be ignored."
Rival rallies on historic holiday
The dramatic developments came as protesters took to the streets in Venezuela, answering an opposition call to fill streets nationwide in an appeal to the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind Maduro’s socialist government.
Demonstrators clogged avenues in eastern Caracas, chanting "Get out, Maduro" and "Guaido, Presidente," while waving national flags. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several areas.
Addressing the crowd, Guaido accused Maduro of usurping power. He promised to create a transitional government that would help the country escape its hyperinflationary economic collapse.
"I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end to the usurpation," the 35-year old Guaido told an exuberant crowd.
The protests were called to coincide with a historic date for Venezuelans - the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez. A smaller number of government supporters also marched in downtown Caracas in a rival show of strength.
The competing demonstrations come after a whirlwind week that saw an uprising by a tiny military unit, fires set during protests in poor neighbourhoods and the brief detention by security forces of the newly installed head of the opposition-controlled congress.
Four people were killed in clashes overnight Wednesday ahead of the demonstrations, according to police and an NGO.
For much of the past two years, following a deadly crackdown on protests in 2017 and the failure of negotiations ahead of last May's boycotted presidential election, the coalition of opposition parties has been badly divided by strategy and ego battles 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 differences and are projecting a united front.
Maduro slams Pence
The government 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 while blaming "terrorists" allegedly linked to Guaido's Popular Will party for a fire at a cultural centre named for a pro-government lawmaker murdered in 2014.
Maduro also accused US 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.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)