UPDATED: Venezuelan Opposition Leader Guaido Declares Himself President, Recognized by US and Allies

The move marks a significant escalation of the political crisis in Venezuela, as Maduro called on the people to defeat this “coup attempt.”

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Juan Guaido declared himself president at the end of an opposition march in Caracas. (AP)
Juan Guaido declared himself president at the end of an opposition march in Caracas. (AP)
By Ricardo Vaz
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Pays de Gex, France, January 23, 2019 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Opposition leader Juan Guaido swore himself in as “interim president” of Venezuela on Wednesday, a move which was immediately recognized by the United States and regional allies.

“As president of the National Assembly, before God and Venezuela, I swear to formally assume the competencies of the national executive as interim president of Venezuela,” he declared before an opposition rally in eastern Caracas.

Guaido had already proclaimed on several occasions that he was “ready” to assume the responsibilities of the executive branch, as the US was reportedly considering recognizing him as “interim president.”

US authorities reacted swiftly, with President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Senator Marco Rubio immediately voicing their recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.

“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 a statement.

Washington’s regional allies, including Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and other members of the so-called Lima Group, were quick to follow suit, giving their backing to the 35-year-old opposition politician. The Lima Group had set the tone in early January with a statement refusing to recognize Maduro’s second term.

Meanwhile, Cuba and Bolivia expressed their support for Maduro, while Uruguay and the new Lopez Obrador government in Mexico refused to recognize Guaido as president and called for dialogue to “avoid an escalation of violence.” Russia and Turkey likewise indicated that their relations with Maduro administration were unchanged.

For its part, Beijing stated Thursday that it rejected "outside sanctions or interference" in Venezuela, which, "make the situation more complicated and are not helpful to resolving the actual problems." "China supports efforts made by the Venezuelan government to protect the country’s sovereignty, independence and stability," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said in a regular briefing.

In a communique, the European Union announced it was ready to “support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela [...] in line with the Venezuelan constitution,” but stopped short of recognizing Guaido as president. So far, only Spain and Portugal have issued statements, declining to recognize Guaido as president and calling for a joint EU position.

Venezuelan authorities, for their part, slammed what they termed a “coup attempt” led by the United States. Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and president of the National Constituent Assembly, called on Chavistas to remain united and set up vigils protecting Miraflores Palace.

President Maduro later addressed supporters from the iconic “People’s Balcony” in Miraflores Palace.

“This coup attempt that is being unleashed in the country is the most unwise effort by imperialism and its lackeys in the Venezuelan opposition,” Maduro told the crowd.

The Venezuelan president also announced Venezuela was severing all ties with the United States, giving US diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country. Maduro went on to call for maximum mobilization to defend peace and defeat what he termed a “US-led coup attempt.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to the Venezuelan head of state, refusing to withdraw US diplomats on the grounds that Maduro does not “have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.” Caracas has yet comment on the US official’s statement.

Venezuelan Defense Minister Padrino Lopez likewise issued a statement refusing to recognize any president "imposed by shady interests and self-proclaimed illegally," and vowing that the armed forces would defend the country’s sovereignty and the constitution. Guaido, other opposition figures, and US leaders have repeatedly urged the armed forces to depose the Maduro government.

A short-lived mutiny in the National Guard was neutralized on Monday, and both Maduro and Cabello have called for the unity of the armed forces.

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Maduro addressed supporters from Miraflores Palace. (Presidential Press)
Maduro addressed supporters from Miraflores Palace. (Presidential Press)

There is uncertainty as to what follows, with Maduro referring Guaido’s self-proclamation to the country’s judicial authorities. Earlier in the day, the Venezuelan Supreme Court had declared that the recent actions of the National Assembly were “null” and beyond its competencies, calling on the Public Prosecutor’s Office to determine the criminal liabilities. The legislature has been declared “null and void” since 2016 by judicial authorities for flouting a court order to unseat three lawmakers under investigation for voter fraud.

Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering imposing oil sanctions on Venezuela as early as this week, or severely limiting imports, which would deprive the Maduro government of a crucial source of revenue.

Torino Capital Chief Economist Francisco Rodriguez, who advised defeated opposition presidential candidate Henri Falcon last year, wrote on Twitter that the recognition from the Trump administration makes it possible for Guaido, or a presumed transition government, to take charge of Venezuelan assets on US soil, such as state oil company PDVSA’s largest subsidiary, CITGO. It could also prevent the Venezuelan government from invoicing payments for oil shipments.

The day saw significant pro- and anti-government marches take place throughout the country and especially in Caracas, on a date marking the anniversary of the overthrow of the Perez Jimenez dictatorship on January 23, 1958.

The marches were largely peaceful but there were a few incidents of violence. There were reports of clashes between opposition supporters and security forces in Caracas after the former tried to block a highway in the southwest of the city. In the states of Cojedes and Monagas, government supporters denounced arson attacks against the local PSUV headquarters and a building housing state social services, respectively. There were also reports of deaths following clashes in Barinas and San Cristobal which have yet to be confirmed.

At the time of writing disturbances have been reported in eastern Caracas, close to La Carlota airbase, a scene of frequent “guarimba” protests in 2017. Opposition groups allegedly set up burning barricades, hijacked a truck and attacked the base, leading to several arrests. There have also been reports of some barricades being set up in other Venezuelan cities.

Edited and with additional reporting by Lucas Koerner from Caracas.