Venezuelans headed into uncharted political waters Thursday, with the young leader of a newly united and combative opposition claiming to hold the presidency over socialist Nicolas Maduro, who is digging in for a fight with the Trump administration.
Violence flared again Wednesday during anti-government demonstrations across Venezuela, and at least seven protesters reportedly were killed in the escalating confrontation with Maduro, who has been increasingly accused of undemocratic behaviour 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 co-ordinated front, the U.S., Canada and some Latin American and European countries have since announced they support Guaido’s claim to the interim presidency.
But Russia, China, Iran, Syria and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro’s government.
U.S. President Donald Trump promised Wednesday to use the “full weight” of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
But Maduro fired back by breaking diplomatic relations with the U.S., the biggest trading partner for the oil-exporting country, and ordering American diplomats to get out of the country within 72 hours. Washington said it would ignore the order.
The socialist leader, who so far has been backed by the military, as well as the government-packed courts and a constituent assembly, recalled the long history of heavy-handed U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War as he asked his allies for support.
“Don’t trust the gringos,” he thundered to a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace. “They don’t have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, guts and the ambition to take Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold.”
China’s Foreign Ministry called on the United States to stay out of the crisis, while Russia’s deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela.
Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms deliveries and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia’s political and financial support.
Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion US in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.
OAS meets in Washington
On Thursday, attention will shift to Washington, where diplomats at the Organization of American States will hold an emergency meeting on the Venezuelan situation. The debate promises to be charged, and the National Assembly’s newly picked diplomatic envoy will be lobbying to take Venezuela’s seat from Maduro’s ambassador.
Meanwhile, many Venezuelans will be looking for Guaido to re-emerge and provide guidance on the opposition’s next steps.
The armed forces’ top command, which has so far remained silent, is also expected to issue a statement, although nobody expects the general’s loyalties to Maduro to have shifted.
Tensions began ramping up earlier this month as Maduro took the oath of office for a second six-year term won in an election last May that many in the region contend was not free or fair because his strongest opponents were barred from running.
The 35-year-old Guaido, a virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, has reignited the hopes of Venezuela’s often beleaguered opposition by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela’s crushing economic crisis.
He escalated his campaign Wednesday by declaring that the constitution gives him, as president of the congress, the authority to take over as interim president and form a transitional government until he calls new elections.
Raising his right hand in unison with tens of thousands of supporters, he took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers: “Today, Jan. 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela.”
The assault on Maduro’s rule came after large crowds gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting “Get out, Maduro!” in what was the biggest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.
Amid the showdown, all eyes are on the military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela — and to which Guaido has been targeting his message.
But there were no signs that security forces heeded Guaido’s call to join the anti-Maduro movement and go easy on demonstrators. Hours after most demonstrators went home, violence broke out in Altamira, an upscale zone of Caracas and an opposition stronghold, when National Guardsmen descended on hundreds of youths.
Meanwhile, four demonstrators were killed by gunfire in the western city of Barinas as security forces were dispersing a crowd. Three others were killed amid unrest in the border city of San Cristobal.