Venezuelans headed into uncharted political waters in the early hours on Thursday, with the young leader of a newly united and combative opposition claiming to hold the presidency and socialist President Nicolas Maduro digging in for a fight with the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump promised to use the ‘full weight’ of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy. ‘The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,’ he said in a statement.
Trump said told reporters that he had not considered sending U.S. forces in to help stabilize the country, but ‘all options’ remain on the table, including military troops.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed that ‘appropriate action’ will be taken if any U.S. diplomats are harmed in Venezuela after Trump dramatically recognized Guaido as interim president and Maduro retaliated.
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Violence flared in Venezuela after Juan Guaido, (right) leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, announced himself ‘interim president’ - to the outrage of current President Nicolas Maduro (left)
Riot police clash with opposition demonstrators during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro on the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship in Caracas on Wednesday
Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-run congress who declared himself interim president of Venezuela until elections can be called, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation in the capital of Caracas on Wednesday
A sea of Venezuelans raised their hands high to signal their support for Guaido, who has been recognized as interim president by US President Donald Trump
Violence flared again Wednesday during big anti-government demonstrations across Venezuela, and at least seven protesters were reported killed in the escalating confrontation with Maduro’s government
Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela’s opposition-run congress, waves at supporters after declaring himself interim president of the South American country during a rally demanding the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas on Wednesday
Anti-government protesters burn an effigy of President Nicolas Maduro after a rally demanding his resignation
A protester covered in bloody welts shows off his injuries during a violent clash in Caracas on Wednesday
An anti-Maduro protester wears a makeshift gas mask to protect himself from tear gas during clashes with security forces
Violence flared again Wednesday during big anti-government demonstrations across Venezuela, and at least seven protesters were reported killed in the escalating confrontation with Maduro, who has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behavior by the United States and many other nations in the region.
Juan Guaido, the new leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, turned up the heat by declaring himself interim president before a mass of demonstrators in Caracas. He said it is the only way to end the Maduro ‘dictatorship’ in Venezuela, which has seen millions flee in recent years to escape sky-high inflation and food shortages.
‘We know that this will have consequences,’ Guaido shouted to the cheering crowd, then slipped away to an unknown location amid speculation that he would soon be arrested.
In a united and seemingly coordinated front, the U.S, Canada and another dozen mostly Latin American countries, including Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, quickly announced that they supported Guaido’s claim to the presidency.
U.S. National Security adviser John Bolton reaffirmed Trump’s comments in a conversation with reporters on Thursday morning at the White House.
‘I think that speaks for itself,’ he told a reporter asking about the military. ‘What we’re focusing on today is disconnecting the illegitimate Maduro regime from the source of its revenues. We think consistent with our recognition of Juana Guaido as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela that those revenues should go to the legitimate government. It’s very complicated.’
He said, ‘We’re looking at a lot of different things we have to do, but that’s in the process. We’re speaking with governments in this hemisphere which have overwhelmingly recognize the new constitutional government. We’re talking to our colleagues in Europe and elsewhere to demonstrate widespread political support for the interim presidency, and we’re moving to do everything we can to strengthen this new legitimate representative government.’
Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guard soldiers detain an anti-government protester, whose face they covered with his shirt
Supporters of Venezuela across South and Central America gathered to celebrate Guaido’s self-proclamation on Wednesday. Demonstrators are seen smiling with Venezuelan flags at a rally in Guadalajara, Jalisco state, Mexico
Protesters of President Nicolas Maduro are seen at a demonstration in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday night
Bolton revealed that Vice President Mike Pence had spoken to Guaido prior to Trump’s statement recognizing him as the interim president.
‘The vice president spoke to him the evening before the recognition statement made by the president and others are speaking with him as well, through our embassy in Caracas, our personnel, we’re still there, they’ve been invited to stay by the legitimate government, consistent with their safety, that’s our intention, but we’re working really around the clock here to do what we can to strengthen the new government,’ he said.
After the opposition leader earned the support of the Trump administration, Maduro retaliated by breaking off relations with the U.S. and ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.
Pompeo said Wednesday night that that U.S. would not pull its diplomats out of Venezuela and would instead abide by Guaido’s directive that countries retain their diplomatic missions in the South American country.
He said the US doesn’t recognize the authority of Maduro and that he doesn’t have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the US.
‘We call on the Venezuelan miltiary and security forces to continue protecting the welfare and well-being of all Venezuelan citizens, as well as U.S. and other foregin citizens in Venezuela,’ Pompeo said.
‘The United States will take appropriate actions to hold accountable anyone who endangers the safety and security of our mission and its personnel.’
Dramatic move: The White House tweeted its recognition of the opposition leader minutes after he took a symbolic oath in front of massed demonstrators
After opposition leader Guaido was backed by the Trump administration, Maduro retaliated by breaking off relations with the US and ordered American diplomats to leave within 72 hours. The US embassy in Caracas is pictured above
Which countries are supporting Venezuela’s opposition?
Supporting ‘interim’ President Juan Guaido:
- United States
- Costa Rica
Supporting Nicolas Maduro:
A senior Trump administration official also told reporters on a conference call: ‘If Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence – if they choose to harm any of the national assembly members or any of the other duly legitimate officials of the government of Venezuela – all options are on the table for the United States in regards to actions to be taken.’
Other nations, including Canada, Brazil and Argentina, also have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s president.
Earlier, Trump tweeted his support for Guaido shortly after the 35-year-old took an oath of office in front of demonstrators in Caracas calling on Maduro to quit.
‘The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime,’ Trump tweeted.
‘Today, I have officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela.’
The dramatic move by Trump came after the head of the opposition-controlled congress took a symbolic oath before God to assume executive powers he says are his right under Venezuela’s constitution and to take over the presidency until new elections can be called.
Guaido said he was taking the politically-risky step just two weeks after Maduro took his own oath to a second, six-year term confident that it was the only way to rescue Venezuela from ‘dictatorship’ and restore constitutional order.
‘We know that this will have consequences,’ Guaido, 35, told the cheering crowd standing before a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms.
‘To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans,’ he shouted.
Symbolic move: Juan Guaido was ‘sworn in’ as ‘acting president’, taking the oath then holding the country’s flag and a picture of Simon Bolivar, who liberated it from Spanish rule, in front of demonstrators in the east of Caracas
Masses: Huge demonstrations in Caracas continued Wednesday as supporters of the opposition leader continued to call for Nicolas Maduro to relinquish power
Nothing off limits: At the White House Trump was asked about use of the military and said ‘all options are on the table.’
The United States and all but one member of the Lima Group of regional nations threw their support behind Guaido after he declared himself interim president in a defiant speech before masses of anti-government demonstrators.
The declaration by the Lima Group, which has been vocal in denouncing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, was signed by Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru. Mexico was the only member to not sign.
It said it saw Maduro as president ‘for the time being’, a limited endorsement which will do little to prop up his case, while in Russia lawmakers accused the U.S. – like Maduro did – of being behind a ‘coup.’
But Guaido’s declaration takes Venezuela into uncharted territory, with the possibility of the opposition now running a parallel government recognized abroad as legitimate but without control over state functions.
In a televised broadcast from the presidential palace, Maduro accused the opposition of seeking to stage a coup with the support of the United States, which he said was seeking to govern Venezuela from Washington.
Venezuela and the United States: A timeline of their relations as Nicolas Maduro battles for power
1835: Washington establishes diplomatic relations with Venezuela, after the South American country gains independence from Spain. U.S. policy in Latin America is grounded in the Monroe Doctrine of opposing European intervention in the region.
1902: President Theodore Roosevelt defuses a crisis in Venezuela after European nations including Britain and Germany imposed a blockade over unpaid debts. His idea of an ‘international police power’ becomes known as the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine.
1914: Venezuela opens its first major oilfield, giving it crucial strategic value to the United States. Further oil sources are discovered during the course of World War I. By the late 1920s it was one of the world’s leading oil exporters.
1942: The country is granted $4million of military equipment under Lend-Lease during World War II. It is one of more than 40 nations offered aid in the scheme, which began before the U.S. entered the war.
1950: A U.S. State Department paper says: ‘All policies toward Venezuela are affected in greater or less degree by the objective of assuring an adequate supply of petroleum for the U.S.’. The document also lists Venezuelan iron ore deposits as being of strategic interest to Washington.
1959: Democratically-elected leader Romulo Betancourt takes power in Venezuela after the fall of a military dictatorship, and is, regarded by the U.S. as an anti-Communist ally during the Cold War. The countries remain broadly aligned until 1999.
1973: U.S. backing for a military coup in Chile – in which army chief Augusto Pinochet overthrows democratically-elected socialist Salvador Allende - becomes a symbol of Washington’s interventionism in Latin America.
1974: Venezuela restores diplomatic relations with Washington’s Cold War enemy, Cuba. They had earlier been cut off under Betancourt’s doctrine of denying recognition to undemocratic regimes.
1997: Bill Clinton’s White House describes Venezuela as a ‘close’ partner thanks to their oil trade, with a ‘strong mutual commitment to democracy’. For a time in the 1990s Venezuela is the largest oil exporter to the United States. It marks the last high point of Washington’s relationship with Caracas.
1999: Venezuela lurches to the left as anti-American socialist Hugo Chavez – who had attempted a coup in 1992 – becomes President. It is the start of two decades of worsening relations with Washington.
Hugo Chavez at the UN in 2006 where he called Bush ‘the devil’
2002: Chavez is briefly toppled by a coup before returning to power. He accuses the United States of involvement in the attempted overthrow, claiming the CIA knew about it in advance. Loyalists in the military return Chavez to power after interim president Pedro Carmona dissolved the constitution.
2003: The Venezuelan leader opposes the American-led invasion of Iraq, saying in November that year it had led to ‘terrible destablization’ and violence’. The war escalates tensions between Chavez and George W. Bush.
2006: President Chavez calls George W. Bush ‘the devil’ during a speech at the United Nations in New York, saying the podium still ‘smelled of sulphur’ after the 43rd U.S. President had spoken there the day before.
2009: Barack Obama meets Chavez in Trinidad and Tobago in a bid to improve relations. Obama, who had recently been sworn in, defends his ‘polite conversation’ with the Venezuelan leader but he is slammed by U.S. Republicans for bolstering ‘enemies of America’.
2013: Hugo Chavez dies on March 5, aged 58, just months after winning re-election to another term, defeating centrist candidate Henrique Capriles. Nicolas Maduro, running to continue his mentor’s policies, wins the resulting presidential election by less than two per cent. In his inaugural speech he attacks Washington’s ‘imperialism’.
2015: Obama declares Venezuela a security threat, accusing the country’s government of persecuting opponents, arbitrary detentions, violating human rights and ‘significant public corruption’. The U.S. Treasury Department also orders sanctions on seven named Venezuelan officials.
2017: Maduro forms a new Constituent Assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, seen as an effort to target and imprison opposition leaders. Opponents said the electoral system was rigged in favour of the government. The U.S. government does not recognise the assembly.
2019: Donald Trump recognises opposition leader Juan Guaido after he declared himself interim President. It comes amid nationwide protests after Maduro was sworn in for a second term following a disputed election victory in May 2018, which opponents said was achieved by vote-rigging. Maduro vows to fight on and is backed by the country’s military chiefs.
‘We’ve had enough interventionism, here we have dignity, damn it! Here is a people willing to defend this land,’ said Maduro, flanked by top Socialist Party leaders, although the defense minister and members of the military high command were absent.
Any change of government will rest on a shift in allegiance within the armed forces. So far, they have stood by Maduro through two waves of street protests and a steady dismantling of democratic institutions.
The office of Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino did not answer a phone call seeking comment.
Maduro started a second term on Jan. 10 following a widely-boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a sham.
Venezuela’s constitution says if the presidency is determined to be vacant, new elections should be called in 30 days and that the head of congress should assume the presidency in the meantime.
However, the pro-government Supreme Court has ruled that all actions taken by congress are null and void and Maduro’s government has previously accused Guaido of staging a coup and threatened him with jail.
Guaido’s political mentor, Leopoldo Lopez, was arrested in 2014, one of dozens of opposition activists and leaders the government jailed for seeking to overthrow Maduro through violent street demonstrations in 2014 and 2017.
The Trump administration could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week, according to sources. The South American country has the largest crude reserves in the world and is a major supplier to U.S. refiners, though output is hovering near 70-year lows and reaction in the oil markets was muted on Wednesday.
Maduro has presided over Venezuela’s spiral into its worst-ever economic crisis, with hyperinflation forecast to reach 10 million percent this year. Some 3 million Venezuelans have fled abroad over the past five years to escape widespread shortages of food and medicine.
In a potent symbol of anger, demonstrators in the southern city of Puerto Ordaz on Tuesday toppled a statue of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, Maduro’s heir. They broke the statue in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.
‘We need freedom, we need this corrupt government to get out, we need to all unite, so that there is peace in Venezuela,’ said Claudia Olaizola, a 54-year-old saleswoman on a march in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.
On bond markets, Venezuela’s benchmark 2027 bond was trading above 31 cents on the dollar for the first time since May 2018, up from 22.25 cents just two weeks ago.
The declaration of Guaido as interim president came as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets Wednesday accusing embattled Maduro of usurping power and demand he step down as the country reels from a crushing economic crisis forcing millions to flee or go hungry.
Large crowds of protesters 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.
Pro-government demonstrators dressed in red in support of Maduro were also marching 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.
‘Join us!’ the protesters cried out to a line of officers wearing helmets and carrying shields. ‘You are also living this crisis!’
The protests were called to coincide with an historic date for Venezuelans – the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
‘The democratic forces are here advancing,’ opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said as she marched. ‘Not so that Maduro changes but so that he leaves.’
The demonstration comes after 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, the newly installed head of the opposition-controlled congress.
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 Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.
In the southern city of Ciudad Bolivar, a 30-year-old worker, Carlos Olivares, was killed when four unidentified men descended from a beige Jeep and fired upon a crowd that was looting a store.
Two more unidentified people were also killed, according to a police report of the incident, while two were injured.
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.
A protester is left bloodied as thousands take to the streets during a protest against President Maduro in Caracas
A demonstrator throws back a tear gas canister during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas on Wednesday
Opposition: A demonstrator with a poster board showing the prices of basic food is one of tens of thousands who have turn out against Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas
Time to go: Opposition members shouting slogans against Maduro have been part of re-invigorated opposition hoping to persuade the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind Maduro’s government
Grim reality: Carmen Marcano, a Cotiza neighborhood resident, shows her wounds caused by rubber bullets fired by Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guardsmen during a protest Tuesday
Guaido, who is taking the reins 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.
In the run-up to Wednesday’s protests, the defiant young lawmaker crisscrossed Caracas attending outdoor assemblies known as ‘Open Cabildos’ – for the revolutionary citizen councils held against Spanish colonial rule – pumping up crowds by arguing that Maduro must go for democracy to be restored.
‘We are tired of this disaster,’ he said Monday from the roof of a college building. ‘We know this isn’t a fight of a single day but one that requires lots of resistance.’
An enthusiastic crowd of students answered with shouts of ‘Freedom!’
Driving the crisis was Maduro’s decision to ignore international opposition and take the presidential oath on January 10 for a second term widely considered illegitimate after his main opponents were banned from running against him.
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.
Distubrances continued into Tuesday, with small pockets of unrest in a few working-class neighborhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support. More violence was reported Tuesday night.
What side will they take? A heckler beside a group of Bolivarian National Guardsmen blocking a protest march against Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. The military have so far remained behind him but cracks are beginning to show
‘People are tired of so much misery,’ said Carmen Marcano, holding up her shirt to show seven buckshot wounds suffered during the clashes in the Cotiza slum next to where the rebellious guardsmen were captured.
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.
‘As we say in the barracks, hunger is the only thing that can devour fear of the government.’
Maduro 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, blaming what he called ‘terrorists’ allegedly linked to Guaido’s Popular Will party for a fire at a cultural center named for a pro-government lawmaker murdered in 2014.
He 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.
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