Venezuelan opposition rejoices as lawmaker proclaims himself president

Caracas (AFP) –


Tens of thousands of opposition protesters burst into ecstatic cheering and shouts of joy in the streets of Caracas on Wednesday after parliament leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president.

"What's happened today fills us with hope, what these people have today is hope, it is a clear need for us so we can move forward," said Jose Gregorio Flores, a 43-year-old university professor walking in the anti-government march called by Guaido.

He was speaking minutes after the 35-year-old National Assembly leader proclaimed himself interim president from a platform above the crowd.

"We have to support him in everything he says. He has said he does not want to become the perennial president of Venezuela, he has to call elections," said Flores. "And this city is out on the streets and is supporting him."

While other protesters around him honked car horns and waved Venezuelan flags from the back of motorcycles, Flores said it was a moment to think about the 2.3 million Venezuelans who had emigrated since 2015 in the midst of an economic collapse overseen by unpopular President Nicolas Maduro.

"Most of my entries for my friends on my telephone contacts list now say 'Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, United States' -- they have to come back, to help us rebuild the country," he said, embracing the hope that the protests will eventually crystallize into an Guaido-led government.

The United States and many of Venezuela's neighbors, who refused to recognize Maduro's re-election last year, lost no time in formally recognizing Guaido as president.

- 'We'll defend him' -

Addressing the demonstration in eastern Caracas, Guaido said: "We know that this will have consequences. We know what is necessary to keep us in the streets of Venezuela until we achieve democracy, we will not let this great movement of hope and national strength be deflated."

Euphoric after listening to the words of the young opposition leader, Estelvi Gonzalez said "We are going to defend Juan Guaido as we must, because here we are not going to be scared anymore."

"Juan Guaido is already our president, we are here to fight against everything," Gonzalez, a lawyer, said while shouts of "Viva Venezuela" and "Maduro Out" rang out around her.

Yosmar Cabrea, a 30-year-old shop owner, was already heading away from the demonstration with familiy when she heard of Guaido's declaration.

"This is the beginning of a new hope, a new time, a new stage, I'm going to live through something new," an emotional Cabrea told AFP, recalling that she had been a 10-year-old when Maduro's predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999.

- Vigil around Maduro -

Elsewhere in the tense Venezuelan capital -- as well as in cities around the country -- tens of thousands of Maduro supporters were also on the march. He had called them out to back his socialist government and to reject what they have branded a blatant coup d'etat-in-progress.

Presaging further drama, Maduro's number two Diosdado Cabello called on his supporters to gather outside his Miraflores presidential palace to protect him.

"Let's all go in an orderly way to the Miraflores palace and give our support to our brother Nicolas Maduro and let him who wants to be president come to Miraflores and find the people there defending him," said Cabello.

Thousands of Maduro supporters clad in red then marched several blocs from the city's O'Leary Square to Maduro's palace.