US Recognizes Venezuela Opposition Leader as Legitimate Interim President

US Recognizes Venezuela Opposition Leader as Legitimate Interim President
Venezuela's National Assembly head Juan Guaido declares himself acting president during a mass opposition rally in Caracas on Jan. 23, 2019, against leader Nicolas Maduro on the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the country’s military dictatorship. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

BOGOTA, Colombia—U.S. President Donald Trump has recognized the head of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress as the country’s legitimate interim president.

In front of hundreds of supporters on Jan. 23, Juan Guaidó, leader of the opposition-run National Assembly, swore himself in as “interim president” in the hope of soon being recognized by the United States as Venezuela’s legitimate political leader.

Those hopes were quickly met by a statement from Trump, who declared Guaidó “the Interim President of Venezuela” and declared the National Assembly “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people.”

“I will continue to use the full weight of United States’ economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy,” the statement from the White House added, before encouraging other leaders in the Western Hemisphere to follow suit.

Canada did just that on Jan. 23, as did most members of the Lima Group. Formed in 2017, the Lima Group consists of 14 countries including Canada that seek a peaceful resolution to the political crisis in Venezuela.

Venezuelan opposition supporters take to the streets to protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Jan. 23, 2019. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan opposition supporters take to the streets to protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro on Jan. 23, 2019. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, people in the tens of thousands took to the streets of Caracas and other cities in the hope of removing Nicolas Maduro from power. The Maduro regime has seen the country slide into a dire economic and political crisis.

Four people were killed during the protests in clashes with security forces—among them a 16-year-old who was shot to death—and at least 43 were detained by authorities, according to non-governmental organizations monitoring the events.

The protests marked 61 years since the fall of the country’s military dictatorship in 1958 and come during a particularly tumultuous week for the regime. On Jan. 21, the first low-ranking military uprising was recorded and 27 members of the National Guard were arrested, suggesting cracks are forming in the military’s loyalty to the government. The incident was followed by widespread protests that left cars ablaze and statues smashed.

Many of those protests were reported from Chavista neighborhoods, as the ever-deteriorating conditions have now forced even those who long-supported the legacy of former President Hugo Chavez to the streets.

The uprising has been attributed to the reinvigoration of the National Assembly, thanks to its new, fresh-faced leader Guaidó, but also due to new levels of discontent in the once-rich nation. Major shortages of food, medicine, and basic items continue, and hyperinflation is now predicted to reach 10 million percent. Three million Venezuelans have fled the Andean nation as a result.

“I am marching because I don’t live in democracy. There is no future. ... Almost all my friends and family have left the country,” Canaimé Arellano, a 27-year-old student in Caracas, told The Epoch Times. “It’s now or never: I want to see my Venezuela free of these communists who have done so much damage.”

Many participants hope the demonstrations will spur on Guaidó and help oust Maduro, who started a six-year term on Jan. 10. Maduro’s inauguration was largely recognized as fraudulent and in violation of the country’s democratic constitution.

“We all went out to march in support of Juan Guaidó and to once again say, we don’t want Maduro,” said Ana, who took to the streets in the state of Acarigua. “We want to live in freedom. Super inflation is killing us, you earn $9 a month and food for a cat costs $28. There is no food, no medicine; patients are dying in hospitals.”

In Caracas, 63 protests were registered by the Social Conflict Observatory. While some scenes were largely peaceful, with major roads and bridges filled with protesters adorned in Venezuelan flags chanting “Maduro Out!” others were met with violence as crowds were dispersed by tear gas. A 16-year-old was reportedly shot dead in west Caracas while three others died while “looting” in Ciudad Bolivar, in the southeast of the country, according to the Defense Ministry.

Scenes on social media showed protesters pleading with Caracas riot police to join them in the demonstrations; and in the city of San Felix, a statue of Chavez was engulfed in flames while protesters shouted and banged pots and pans.

Many fear a brutal crackdown will follow, as national police and armed pro-Maduro gangs have often maintained control by beating or, in some cases, shooting demonstrators. Hundreds have been killed and thousands detained in this way in recent years.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote on Twitter on the eve of the protests that officials “should reconsider the plan they have for tomorrow before it’s too late,” suggesting sources had made him aware of a heavy-handed security response. “You are about to cross a line & trigger a response that believe me you are not prepared to face.”

Despite the potential repercussions and ominous early-morning showers, the protests continued.

“We are expecting the beginning of a democratic transition,” said Oscar Patiño, general coordinator of A World Without Censorship, an NGO that promotes human rights in Venezuela. “We are seeing great support from people that were once Chavistas. ... The people can no longer bear the situation and are asking for Nicolas to go.”

Simultaneous demonstrations were held across the world from London to Sydney in defiance of the current government as diplomatic pressure builds and sanctions grow. Brazil, Colombia, and the United States have been vocal critics of the “illegitimate leader.”

International observers will be closely monitoring any signs of defection from the military, which Guaidó has identified as key to removing the “usurper” Maduro.

Meanwhile, on Jan 23, Maduro gave U.S. diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, saying he’s cutting off relations with the United States. The move comes in response to Vice President Mike Pence’s Jan. 22 video recording calling Maduro a dictator and declaring support for Guaidó.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of members of the Lima Group. The Lima Group comprises 14 member countries. The Epoch Times regrets the error.