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. Meanwhile, massive protests against Maduro swept Caracas as other demonstrators rallied in support of the country’s current leader.
Guaido’s declaration and support from the United States is a clear sign that opposition movements believe they may have enough momentum to remove Maduro from power.
“This is an important message to the Maduro regime, and an opportunity for them to accept a peaceful transition to democracy according to their own constitution and their own legal order,” a senior Trump administration official said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. “If Maduro chooses to respond with violence, all options are on the table for the United States. The full diplomatic and economic power of the United States will be put forward in support of the legitimate interim president of Venezuela.”
The White House said in its statement that 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, the hand-picked successor of former socialist President Hugo Chavez, has faced widespread opposition inside the country and from the international community since claiming victory in the May 2018 presidential elections. His 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 steadily increased its pressure on Maduro since Trump took office in 2017.
The U.S. 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.
Maduro responded to Trump’s decision to recognize Guaido by saying Venezuela is breaking diplomatic ties with the U.S. The announcement gives U.S. personnel about three days to leave Venezuela.
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.
Trump has not matched his aggressive stance toward Venezuela when dealing with other autocratic regimes, including those in the Philippines, Russia or Saudi Arabia, a fact noted by freshman U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of the first progressive members of Congress to weigh in on Trump’s recognition of the opposition.
“The US is sanctioning Venezuela for their lack of democracy but not Saudi Arabia? Such hypocrisy,” Khanna tweeted Wednesday. “Maduro’s policies are bad and not helping his people, but crippling sanctions or pushing for regime change will only make the situation worse.”
Asked about the differing responses on the conference call, the administration official said only that the United States is obligated to support democracy in the Western Hemisphere.
The official also warned Maduro that the U.S. would seek to force him from office “one way or the other.”
“If they choose the route of violence and seek to usurp the constitutional order and democracy, let us be clear that we have a host of options. We will take every single one of those options seriously,” the official said. “The message to Maduro and his cronies would be if that is the route they choose, the message to them would be they will have no immediate future, they will have no immediate livelihood, and therefore, one way or the other, they will have their days counted.”
This article has been updated with comments from the official’s conference call with reporters.