Opposition leader Juan Guaido has declared himself acting president after urging supporters to take to the streets in an effort to oust President Nicolas Maduro. The US swiftly signaled its support for the move.
Venezuela's opposition leader and president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, on Wednesday declared himself acting president of the crisis-ridden South American country.
Key developments in brief:
Speaking to supporters gathered in front of the National Assembly, Guaido said, "I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, [install] a transitional government and hold free elections."
Juan Guaido, hand on heart and holding the constitution, declared himself acting president of Venezuela to the cheers of supporters in Caracas Wednesday
Maduro: Opposition in 'coup,' Caracas cutting ties with US
President Nicolas Maduro, addressing supporters from the balcony of Miraflores, the presidential palace, said that Guaido and his supporters were attempting a coup and has called on the military to maintain order and discipline.
He also declared that his government would break all diplomatic ties with Washington and gave US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country. Maduro, who accused the opposition of staging a coup, said "I've decided to break diplomatic and political ties with the imperialist government of the United States," to the cheers of his supporters.
This came after the US was quick to recognize Guaido's claim to power and US President Donald Trump said "all options are on the table" when it comes to removing Maduro from power. Police in Caracas have used tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes with opposition supporters.
Juan Guaido later issued a statement appealing to those diplomats that Maduro ordered to leave. The statement read, "The Venezuelan state wants you to maintain your diplomatic presence in our country."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Berlin would work with EU partners to work out a response, but appealed for calm. "We call on all actors to be calm and to refrain from violence," he said.
US recognizes move
The Trump administration has already recognized Guaido as president. In a statement released minutes after Guaido's declaration, US President Donald Trump said he would use, "The full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy."
Trump acknowledged his recognition of Guaido as acting president in a tweet after the official statement.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called on Maduro to step down, tweeted support for Guaido's "courageous" decision, calling for "a transitional government and ... free and fair elections."
At this point a number of countries have recognized Guaido's legitimacy as acting president, these include: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru; Mexico has said it will not change its policy toward Venezuela "for the time being."
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted his support Guaido so that "peace and democracy return to Venezuela."
Luis Almagro, the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), also tweeted his congratulations and voiced the organization's "recognition to spur the country's return to democracy."
Guaido made the the announcement on the anniversary of the coup that ousted military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958. He had previously called for supporters to take to the streets Wednesday in mass demonstrations aimed at driving Venezuela's elected president, Nicolas Maduro, from office.
Maduro has survived similar mass protests in 2014 and 2017. During the 2017 protests some 125 people were killed by authorities.
Maduro's few friends voice support
Nicolas Maduro has few friends in the international community, though Mexico has officially announced that it will stick with him and Bolivian President Evo Morales came out in strong support.
Morales tweeted: "Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and Nicolas Maduro in these decisive hours when the claws of imperialism are once again trying to deal a death blow to democracy and self-determination for the peoples of South America. We will not be the backyard of the US again."
Four dead in overnight protests
Guaido's announcement comes as tensions are in Venezuela are at a fever pitch. Clashes on the eve of his scheduled opposition protests killed four people on Tuesday night; dozens were also arrested.
On Tuesday evening, a 16-year-old was killed by a "firearm injury during a demonstration" in the capital, Caracas, and three others were reported killed in the southern state of Bolivar. Protesters in Puerto Ordaz also toppled a statue of Maduro's predecessor and political mentor Hugo Chavez on Tuesday; smashing it and dangling parts of it from a bridge in the southern city. Some 30 people have been reported detained across the country.
Will the military shift alliances?
Early on Wednesday morning, Guaido had made a plea to the country's military via Twitter, writing: "To all of the national armed forces, our call is clear — from this parliament, we extend our hand and ask you to come to the side of the constitution and the people, your people."
Late Wednesday, however, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino tweeted that "the country's armed forces disavow any president who is self-proclaimed or is controlled by dark interests."
Thus far, Venezuela's military has maintained loyalty to Maduro, as have many of the country's poor. The country's shift to socialism under Chavez was made possible by his pleas to the poor, using state oil revenues to boost welfare benefits in exchange for their support.
'Estamos con ustedes!'
Guaido had previously announced that he would be willing to replace Maduro in the interim and to call free elections with the support of the military. On Tuesday, US Vice President Mike Pence released a video in which he decried President Maduro as "a dictator with no legitimate claim to power." Pence pledged US support for his overthrow, telling Venezuelans: "Estamos con ustedes! We are with you."
A president desperate to maintain power
Maduro, who was recently re-elected in a vote that international observers called a sham — not least because the opposition urged its supporters to boycott the vote — has been struggling to maintain power. His grip has become increasingly tenuous in light of Venezuela's sharp recession.
The economic problems, caused in no small part by low oil prices, have sparked massive social unrest. Food and medical shortages have caused millions of Venezuelans to flee the country and annual inflation has skyrocketed by more than 1 million percent.
Maduro has desperately attempted to shore up foreign aid to keep his oil-rich country propped up, but it increasingly appears that patience in Russia and China— traditional backers — may be waning as Caracas slips ever further into arrears.
js/msh (AFP, AP)