Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó has declared himself interim president of the beleaguered South American country, in a dramatic escalation of efforts to force President Nicolás Maduro from power.
The move was immediately welcomed by the US and Canadian governments. Donald Trump said he would use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
In front of thousands of protesters in the capital, Caracas, Guaidó, the head of the opposition-run national assembly, raised his right hand and said he was “formally assuming the responsibility of the national executive”.
The 35-year-old lawmaker, said his surprise move was the only way to rescue Venezuela from “dictatorship” and restore constitutional order
We know that this will have consequences,” Guaidó, 35, told the cheering crowd standing before a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms.
“To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans,” he shouted.
Guaidó had previously declared himself willing to assume the presidency on an interim basis with the support of the armed forces to call elections.
In a statement, Trump described the national assembly as the “only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people” and called on other countries in the western hemisphere governments to recognize Guaidó as interim president.
“We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people,” he said.
Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said that Maduro’s government was “now fully entrenched as a dictatorship”, and called on him to hand power to the National Assembly until new elections were held.
“The suffering of Venezuelans will only worsen should he continue to illegitimately cling to power,” she said in a statement.
The sudden developments came as tens of thousands joined marches across the country’s capital in what opponents of Nicolás Maduro hope will prove a turning point for the country’s slide into authoritarianism and economic ruin.
Venezuela’s president, who started his second term on 11 January after disputed elections, is facing a reinvigorated opposition as well as increasing international hostility from the rightwing governments of the US, Brazil and Colombia.
Wednesday’s march follow two nights of violent protests in working-class neighbourhoods of Caracas – once bastions of support for the government – and the apparent foiling of an armed uprising by members of the national guard.
Early on Wednesday, protesters in eastern Caracas braved an early morning downpour, shouting in unison: “Who are we? Venezuela! What do we want? Freedom!”
An opposition member holds a Venezuelan national flag during a protest march against Nicolás Maduro in Caracas on Wednesday.
In the centre of the capital, riot police flanked by water tanks and lightly armored vehicles had already been deployed to the central Plaza Venezuelasquare.
Other protests were planned across the country and outside embassies around the world.
Guaidó repeated calls for members of the security forces to withdraw their support for Maduro. “The world’s eyes are on our homeland today,” he said in an early-morning tweet.
Relatively unknown until this month, Guaidó appears to have reinvigorated Venezuela’s opposition which has long been racked by infighting. Ahead of Maduro’s inauguration, Guaidó described the leader as a “usurper” and declared himself ready to assume the presidency until open elections could be held.
Wednesday also marks the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez – a symbolism that was not lost on María de Jesús, a social worker from Caracas who was born on the day of the 1958 rebellion.
“I was born in democracy,” she said on her way to the march in Caracas. “I want my freedom; this is a dictatorship.”
Across town, several hundred supporters held a rival march in support of Maduro. Though it was dwarfed in size by the opposition protest, those in attendance were in a buoyant mood.
“We are here to support our president and defend our resources,” said Ana Media, who works for the state oil company PDVA, as salsa music blasted from loudspeakers. “We know that other countries are against Maduro because they want to take over our resources.”
Oil-rich Venezuela is mired in economic and political turmoil, with hyperinflation rendering the bolivar currency practically worthless. Shortages in food staples and basic medicines are rampant, and crime is widespread. More than 3 million Venezuelans have fled, causing consternation across the continent.
Analysts have long held that Maduro’s survival depends on the backing of the military, who he has rewarded with senior positions in government and the state oil company PDVSA.
But it is unclear how solid that support is. Guaidó and the opposition-held national assembly have sought to peel away the military, offering an amnesty to members of the armed forces who help bring about a return to democracy. This week, authorities arrested 27 national guardsmen who tried to launch an uprising against Maduro.