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Juan Guaido, president of the National Assembly, sings the national anthem during a pro-opposition rally in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Highlights

  • Opposition leader Guaido declares himself Venezuela president
  • Guaido is backed by the US, Canada and others in the region
  • Nicolas Maduro rejects Guaido's claim, ending diplomatic relations with US
  • US says Maduro does not have authority to dispel diplomats

The United States and major South American nations recognised Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim leader Wednesday while the EU called for free elections to restore democracy, leaving President Nicolas Maduro increasingly isolated.

Major regional players Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina all gave their backing to Guaido's self-proclamation as acting president, which he made in front of crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Caracas.

Cuba, however, sprang to the defence of its socialist ally, expressing "solidarity" with Maduro while Mexico extended lukewarm support to him.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government. Image Credit: Reuters

The avalanche of support for Guaido dramatically raised the stakes in Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that has become deeply impoverished under Maduro.

Maduro has clung to power through the support of the Venezuelan military, and he is an ally of Russia, which last month sent two nuclear-capable bombers to the country to participate in a military drill.

Just minutes after Guaido's declaration, US President Donald Trump recognised him as interim leader, and declared his National Assembly was "the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people".

"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," Trump said.

The US said it stood ready to use "all options" if Maduro tries to quash the opposition, in what was an implied threat of military force.

Maduro responded by saying he was cutting off diplomatic ties with Washington, as his riot police clashed with opposition supporters in Caracas.

"Get Out! Leave Venezuela. Here we have dignity, damn it," Maduro said, giving US diplomats 72 hours to depart.

But Guaido tweeted in response that, under him, Venezuela wants countries "to maintain their diplomatic presence in our country".

And the US State Department said "former president Maduro" did not have the authority to sever relations.

Broadening support

Tweeting from the Swiss ski resort of Davos, where he and other leaders were attending the World Economic Forum, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said: "Brazil recognises Mr. Juan Guaido as Venezuela's interim president."

He added that "Brazil will support politically and economically the process of transition so that democracy and social peace return to Venezuela".

Bolsonaro, a far-right former paratrooper who has set about forging close ties with the Trump administration since taking power at the beginning of January, has repeatedly vowed to challenge Maduro in any way he can.

He initially said he was open to discussing Brazil hosting a US military base, before changing his mind when the idea sparked objections from his military brass.

Colombian President Ivan Duque, another US ally also at Davos, told reporters his country was behind Guaido and will "accompany this process of transition to democracy so that the Venezuelan people free themselves of their dictatorship".

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed her country's "full support" for Guaido, adding: "It's an important day for Venezuela and I'm grateful for the solidarity of the Lima Group in speaking out on this."

Eleven members of the 14-nation Lima Group - Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru - later issued a joint statement endorsing Guaido as interim president.

The three holdouts included Mexico, which has maintained a principle of non-intervention under leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as well as Guyana and Saint Lucia.

The United States is not a member but supports the group, which has taken an increasingly strident stance against Maduro, whom it sees as anti-democratic.

The European Union did not join the countries lining up behind Guaido but called for "free and credible elections".

"The EU strongly calls for the start of an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the constitutional order," the bloc's diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

The bloc and its member states "remain ready to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela through a credible peaceful political process in line with the Venezuelan constitution", she added.

And EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that "I hope that all of Europe will unite in support of democratic forces in Venezuela".

He added: "Unlike Maduro, the parliamentary assembly, including Juan Guaido have a democratic mandate from Venezuelan citizens."


US says Maduro does not have authority to dispel diplomats

Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro has no authority to sever diplomatic ties with the United States, the State Department said Wednesday, hitting back after the leftist leader gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

"The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela," a statement said.

"Accordingly the United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata."


Venezuela unrest leaves 13 dead: rights group

Thirteen people have died during two days of unrest in Venezuela amid protests against President Nicolas Maduro, a Caracas-based rights group reported Wednesday.

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A demonstrator throws back a gas canister while clashing with security forces during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez in Tachira, Venezuela January 23, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

The deaths, mostly from gunshot wounds, were recorded in the capital and across the country the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict told AFP.


Cuba backs Maduro after 'coup attempt'

Cuba sprang to the defence of its socialist ally Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday, expressing its "support" for the Venezuela president and hitting out at "imperialist" foes after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president.

Writing on Twitter, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel expressed "our support and solidarity to President Nicolas Maduro after the imperialist attempts to discredit and destabilize the Bolivarian Revolution."

Foreign Minster Bruno Rodriguez described Guaido's move, that was backed by the United States and many Latin American countries, as a "coup attempt."


Venezuela military rejects Guaido's claim on presidency

Venezuela's military has rejected opposition leader Juan Guaido's claims to be the country's "acting president," Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino said on Wednesday.

"The nation's soldiers don't accept a president imposed by obscure interests, nor one self-proclaimed outside of the law," said Padrino on Twitter.

The armed forces "will defend our constitution and is the guarantor of national sovereignty," he added.


EU says voice of people 'cannot be ignored'

The European Union said Wednesday that the voice of the Venezuelan people "cannot be ignored" and called for "free and credible elections" after the South American country's parliament leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.

"The civil rights, freedom and safety of all members of the National Assembly, including its President, Juan Guaido, need to be observed and fully respected," the EU's diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on behalf of the 28-member bloc.


Tusk says hopes EU will support 'democratic forces'

EU Council President Donald Tusk said Wednesday he "hopes that all of Europe will unite in support of democratic forces in Venezuela" after several major countries recognised opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American country's "interim president".

"Unlike (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro, the parliamentary assembly, including Juan Guaido have a democratic mandate from Venezuelan citizens," Tusk wrote on Twitter.


Mexico backs Maduro as Venezuela president

Mexico still backs Nicolas Maduro as Venezuelan president, the government's top spokesman said Wednesday after the head of Venezuela's opposition-controlled legislature declared himself interim president.

"We recognize the authorities elected in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution," Jesus Ramirez, spokesman for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, told AFP.

He later wrote on Twitter that Mexico was "analyzing the situation in Venezuela."

"For the moment, there is no change in our diplomatic relations with the country nor its government," he said.


Riot police clash with anti-Maduro protesters

Venezuelan riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets as clashes broke out with opposition protesters after National Assembly head Juan Guaido declared himself the country's "acting president" in place of socialist supremo Nicolas Maduro, AFP journalists reported.

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Security forces look on after clashing with opposition supporters participating in a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government. Image Credit: Reuters

The clashes broke out when members of the National Guard tried to clear a road in a Caracas suburb that had been blocked by dozens of opposition protesters.


France consulting with EU partners on Venezuela: president's office

France is consulting with its European partners about the situation in Venezuela, the president's office said on Wednesday as the South American country's opposition leader declared himself interim president.

"We are closely following the situation and we are consulting our European partners," a presidency official told Reuters after several countries in the region and Washington recognised opposition head Juan Guaido as interim president.

Bolivia stands firm with Maduro

Bolivia's leftist President Evo Morales affirmed his long-standing alliance with President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday, with a tweet offering to stand by Venezuela's side against what he often calls U.S. meddling in South America's affairs.

"Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and our brother Nicolas Maduro, in these decisive hours in which the claws of imperialism seek again to mortally wound the democracy and self-determination of the peoples of South America," Morales said in the tweet.


Maduro calls on military to remain united

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday called on the country's military to maintain unity and discipline, after the leader of the opposition-controlled congress declared himself interim president and asked for the armed forces' support.

"We will triumph over this as well, we will come out victorious," Maduro told supporters outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, as hundreds of thousands marched around the country demanding he step down and in support of opposition leader Juan Guaido's call for elections.


Multiple nations join US in recognising Guaido as president


Maduro says he is breaking diplomatic relations with US

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday he was breaking diplomatic relations with the United States, after the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the South American country's interim president.

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Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro (C), speaks to a crowd of supporters flanked by his wife Cilia Flores (L) and Venezuela's Vice-president Delcy Rodriguez, during a gathering in Caracas on January 23, 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Speaking to supporters outside the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, socialist leader Maduro said he would give U.S. diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave Venezuela, which is suffering from a hyperinflationary economic collapse.


Guaido declares himself Venezuela president

Caracas: Backed by hundreds of thousands of protesters and the support of the United States, Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president on Wednesday, calling for free elections to end the rule of socialist Nicolas Maduro.

In a statement minutes later, US President Donald Trump recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate interim president, and a Canadian official said Canada was preparing also to add its support.

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, after a rally on Tuesday evening left a reported four people dead.

The 35-year-old Guaido has energized the opposition with a campaign to declare Maduro a usurper after elections last year widely regarded as fraudulent, and has promised a transition to a new government in a nation suffering a hyperinflationary economic collapse.

“I swear to assume all the powers of the presidency to secure an end to the usurpation,” said Guaido, recently elected head of congress, before an exuberant crowd.

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.

Maduro’s administration could also crack down on Guaido. It has previously accused him of staging a coup and has 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.

Guaido has said he would be willing to replace Maduro with the support of the military and to call free elections. Maduro started a second term on Jan. 10 following a widely boycotted election last year that many foreign governments described as a sham.

“I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” Trump said in his statement.

The Trump administration could impose sanctions on Venezuelan oil as soon as this week, according to sources.Any change in government in Venezuela 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 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.

The pro-government Supreme Court has ruled that all actions taken by congress are null and void.

“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 near the march’s center in the eastern Chacao district, a traditional opposition bastion.

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, broke it in half and dangled part of it from a bridge.

A 16-year-old was shot dead at a protest on Tuesday in western Caracas, according to rights group Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict. Three people were shot dead on Tuesday night in southern Bolivar City during looting that followed a nearby protest, Bolivar state governor Justo Noguera said.

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.

“We’ve come out to support the opposition and preserve the future of my son and my family, because we’re going hungry,” said Jose Barrientos, 31, an auto parts salesman in the poor west end of Caracas.