Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro remained defiant Wednesday, despite a domestic political challenge to his leadership, and the denunciation of his “illegitimate” regime by the United States.
“We've had enough interventionism, here we have dignity, damn it!” Maduro said in a televised address from the presidential palace, blasting the White House.
Maduro announced that he was cutting all diplomatic ties with Washington, and told U.S. diplomats they had 72 hours to leave the country.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit back, stating that Maduro no longer had the authority to make such a decision, while Trump told reporters that U.S. military intervention remained an option.
Maduro’s speech came hours after 35-year-old Venezuelan politician Juan Guaidó declared himself interim president.
Guaidó is leader of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Maduro stripped of its powers in 2015.
Addressing hundreds of thousands of protestors in Caracas, Guaidó declared: “I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president.”
Maduro’s many opponents inside and outside Venezuela now hope that Guaidó — who was unknown outside the country before Wednesday — will unite the opposition and end Maduro’s stranglehold on power.
After several days of protests in Caracas — which left at least 14 dead and dozens arrested — Guaidó made his move Wednesday afternoon. Hours later Trump weighed in by declaring that the U.S. was backing the new claim and no longer consider Maduro the president of Venezuela.
Guaidó said protests would continue until "until Venezuela is liberated" and fair elections could be held.
But Maduro showed no sign of stepping down, telling the country that “no one here is surrendering.” Despite the internal and external opposition, Maduro, for now, commands the support of the military and much of the country’s major institutions.
Who is Juan Guaidó?
Guaidó was a low-profile politician in Venezuela until his surprise election as leader of the opposition-held National Assembly three weeks ago.
He was reportedly drawn to politics after the government’s ineffective response to flash floods in the port city of La Guaira, Guaidó’s home town. The floods killed tens of thousands of people.
What’s been the international reaction?
Along with the U.S. and Canada, most of Venezuela’s neighbors support Guaidó claim, including Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Paraguay.
The EU said the voice of the Venezuelan people “cannot be ignored” and called for “free and credible elections.”
European Council President Donald Tusk added that Guaidó “has a democratic mandate from the people.”
Even Instagram — which was temporarily blocked along with Twitter and YouTube in recent days — appeared to pick a side, switching its verified symbol from Maduro to Guaidó.
But Maduro still has some international support.
Russia, a major Venezuelan ally, said it considers the attempted removal of Maduro from office to be illegal. “I do not think that we can recognize this — it is, in essence, a coup,” Vladimir Dzhabrailov, a Russia lawmaker and member of the foreign affairs committee, said.
Maduro has also received a call from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, offering his support. “Our president extended Turkey’s support to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and said ‘My brother Maduro! Stand tall, we stand by you!’,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.
Mexico, Iran, Cuba and Uruguay continue to recognize Maduro’s presidency.
How did we get to this point?
The oil-rich nation has suffered years of economic mismanagement under Maduro, and was hit hard by the 2014 collapse of oil prices. This has led to hyperinflation, power cuts and shortages of food and medicine, all of which has driven millions of Venezuelans out of the country.
The Venezuelan opposition, while united in its hatred of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chávez, has long been undone by its own divisions and inability to put forth a concrete political program.
Maduro and his party have been able to secure control of all levels of government in part because the opposition for years has boycotted elections — and because the government has exiled or imprisoned most of the opposition’s viable leaders.
What happens next?
UN chief António Guterres appealed Thursday for dialogue, hoping to “avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster for the people of Venezuela and for the region.”
But many fear that the U.S. threat to use force could lead to just such an escalation.
“The threat of military action that the administration has wielded is incredibly unhelpful,” Jacob Parakilas, deputy head of the U.S. and the Americas Program at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News. “On balance I think the threat of military action is so unhelpful as to outweigh any positive impact from the diplomatic offensive against Maduro.”
Venezuela is already one the most violent countries in the world, and it is in a region — wedged between the similarly violent Brazil and Colombia — that could explode at any moment.
“Colombia, in particular, is trying to cement a very fragile peace after a decades-long civil war that was armed to the teeth by billions of dollars in US military aid and drug money, with the ELN still operating along Venezuela’s porous western border. It’s a tinderbox, and intervention could be a huge spark,” Asa Cusack, a researcher from the Latin America and Caribbean Centre at the London School of Economics, told VICE News.
Cover image: Juan Guaido, president of the disempowered parliament in Venezuela, declares himself head of state at a rally in front of supporters. (Boris Vergara/picture alliance via Getty Images)