Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president in a defiant speech Wednesday before masses of anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets to demand President Nicolas Maduro’s removal — a bold move that was immediately recognized by the Trump administration and a growing number of other Western nations.
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. Canada as well as Brazil, Colombia and several other Latin American nations followed suit in throwing their support behind Guaido.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump said in a statement.
Maduro responded by swiftly cutting off diplomatic relations with the United States, the biggest importer of Venezuelan oil, and said American diplomats had 72 hours to leave the country.
“Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president…..I’ve decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government,” Maduro told a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace.
Raising his right hand in union with tens of thousands of supporters, Guaido, the fresh-faced head of the opposition-controlled congress, took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers he says are his right under Venezuela’s constitution and to take over as interim president until he calls new elections.
“Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela,” he told the cheering crowd as he stood behind a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms.
Guaido, 35, said he was taking the politically risky step just two weeks after Maduro took his own oath to a second six-year term because it was the only way to rescue Venezuela from “dictatorship” and restore constitutional order.
“We know that this will have consequences,” he shouted, moments before quickly slipping away to an unknown location amid speculation he would soon be arrested. “To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans.”
Socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, widely seen as the No. 2 most powerful person in the country, blasted the U.S. and its “lackeys” in the region for trying to topple Maduro by violent means.
“The Bolivarian revolution doesn’t have an expiration date,” he told a crowd of red-shirted government supporters who then headed to the presidential palace, where Maduro was expected to address them.
Guaido’s declaration came as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets Wednesday accusing the embattled Maduro of usurping power and demanding he step down as the country reels from a crushing economic crisis that has forced millions to flee or go hungry.
Large crowds 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. “Join us!” the protesters cried out to a line of officers wearing helmets and carrying shields. “You are also living this crisis!”
Pro-government demonstrators also marched 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.
Wednesday’s protest was considered a crucial test for the reinvigorated opposition as it seeks to send a forceful message that Maduro no longer has the people’s backing and appeals to the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind the president. 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.
President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all issued statements proclaiming U.S. recognition of Guaido and saying the U.S. would take all diplomatic and economic measures necessary to support a transition to a new government.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump said in his statement.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott called for designating Venezuela a “terrorist state” and imposing additional sanctions in order to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to resign.
Scott told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that Maduro “is clearly a terrorist.”
Scott added: “The way Maduro has treated his citizens is disgusting.”
Scott also urged U.S. President Donald Trump to “look at every sanction he can have” and impose penalties on anybody doing business with or supporting Maduro.
Protests in solidarity with the nation’s re-invigorated opposition movement were also planned in more than 200 cities around the world. In the United States alone, demonstrators are gathering in visible locations in dozens of cities that range from smaller communities like Ocala, Florida, to large metropolitan centers that include Los Angeles and New York City.
Under the Simon Bolivar statue on the southern end of Central Park, Venezuelan residents of New York celebrated with hugs and tears of joy news that Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela. Cheers included “Venezuela, we want liberty” and “Out Maduro.” Others posed with photographs of what they said were victims of Maduro’s government.
“The proclamation of Juan Guaido is our hope, the answer to our fight. I’m excited, I’m happy, because I know this is the road to freedom for Venezuela,” said Gloria Requena, one of the organizers of the New York demonstration.
Venezuelans also held rallies across Spain against the government of Maduro and in support of Guaido.
The rallies were staged in many provincial capitals, with major protests in Tenerife, Barcelona and Madrid. They were timed to coincide with marches in the streets of Venezuela.
Organizers said that around 7,000 protesters gathered in a central square of the Spanish capital, where there is a large Venezuelan community.
The protesters cheered when exiled members of the Venezuelan opposition announced that the U.S. government had recognized Guaido’s leadership.
They called on Spain’s Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to follow the administration of Trump in endorsing Guaido.
The more than 40 countries where protests were taking place Wednesday are home to about 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the country since Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998 and began to put in place what he envisioned as 21st Century Socialism. Early emigrants left for fear of increasing authoritarianism and violence in the country. In recent years, the flow of emigrants has grown exponentially due to political persecution and increased economic distress.
Living in Venezuela has become increasingly difficult for all but the very rich. Wages are not enough to buy food, medicines are hard to find and essential services, such as electricity and water, are failing on a daily basis. The inflation rate in 2018 was a staggering 1,000,000 percent, and it has not dropped in 2019. The population living in Venezuela is increasingly dependent on remittances from family members living abroad to make ends meet.
Among Venezuelans living both in the country and abroad, the dispersion of families resulting from the diaspora has provoked anger. A visible portion of the elderly population has been left in Venezuela. And young people are fleeing the country as soon as they finish high school or college.
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.
The events on Wednesday followed 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.
Guaido, who took the reins of leadership in the opposition-controlled Congress 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.
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 Chavez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor.
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.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s protests, Guaido crisscrossed Caracas attending outdoor assemblies known as “open cobildos” — for the revolutionary citizen councils held against Spanish colonial rule — pumping up crowds by arguing that Maduro must go for democracy to be restored.
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.
Disturbances continued into Tuesday, with small pockets of unrest in a few working-class neighborhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support.
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.
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.