As widespread protests against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro erupted Wednesday, President Donald Trump officially recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s new interim president.
“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” Trump said in the statement. “In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant.”
Trump’s recognition came minutes after Guaido swore himself in as Venezuela’s interim president, and as massive protests against Maduro swept Caracas. Elsewhere in the city, demonstrators rallied in support of the current president, though Guaido’s declaration and support from the United States is a clear sign that opposition movements may have enough momentum to remove Maduro from power.
The White House said the U.S., which has an extensive history of toppling Latin American governments it dislikes, would urge other Western nations to follow suit. Brazil’s new right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, tweeted that Brazil would recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. Canada is expected to recognize him as well, according to Global Affairs Canada. Chile, Colombia, Peru and Paraguay also moved to recognize Guaido. Mexico said it would continue to consider Maduro the country’s legitimate leader, according to reports.
Maduro has faced widespread opposition inside his country and from the international community since winning re-election in May 2018. Maduro’s victory was disputed by his domestic opponents and regarded as illegitimate by many, including the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the European Union and the U.S.
The United States has called Maduro’s election an “insult to democracy” and previously placed sanctions on his government. The Trump administration also barred certain Venezuelan officials from entering the U.S. as part of the president’s revised 2017 travel ban, which largely targeted Muslim-majority countries. Trump reportedly asked top national security advisers in August 2017 why the United States couldn’t simply invade Venezuela to oust Maduro, according to The Associated Press. National security adviser John Bolton declared Venezuela part of a modern “Axis of Evil” in a November speech.
But official support for Guaido is the administration’s most aggressive move yet against Maduro, and could bolster an opposition that has intensified its calls for the leader to be removed from office since he was sworn in as president on Jan. 10.
Venezuela’s opposition movements, which declared Maduro a “usurper” this month, have struggled in their attempts to oust the president, especially as he used his authority to imprison or exile protest leaders, create a new legislative body that sidelines the National Assembly and rig elections in his favor. Guaido was briefly detained last week, and Maduro continues to have the support of Venezuela’s armed forces. Military leaders put down a small insurrection from national guard soldiers earlier this week, and as of Wednesday morning had said they had no plans to abandon their support for Maduro.
Venezuela’s economy has been in crisis for years after global oil prices fell in 2014 and exposed the government’s overreliance on its main export. Hyperinflation is rampant, importing basic necessities such as medicine has become exceedingly difficult and the country is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. At least 3 million refugees and migrants had fled Venezuela as of late last year ― most settling in Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The economic crisis and Maduro’s increasing authoritarianism led to widespread protests in recent years, which authorities targeted with brutal crackdowns that killed dozens of people. Government agents have additionally arrested dissidents in their homes and subjected them to beatings and torture, according to human rights groups.
Trump’s official declaration came a day after Vice President Mike Pence signaled support for Guaido and the opposition movements. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also called for Maduro’s ouster.
Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez blasted Pence in response, saying her American counterpart was “openly calling for a coup.”
“Yankee, go home,” Rodriguez said during a news conference.