As masses of Venezuelans turned out to protest their government, the Trump administration took the unusual and provocative step Wednesday of recognizing the leader of Venezuela’s political opposition as the country’s legitimate president.
In Caracas, the leader, a young and charismatic engineer named Juan Guaido, declared he was assuming the mantle of acting president — and braced for reaction from President Nicolas Maduro and his security forces.
And react he did: Maduro announced he was breaking diplomatic ties, already strained, with Washington and giving U.S. personnel 72 hours to abandon the country. But Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said late Wednesday that the U.S had no plans to withdraw personnel.
“Anyone can declare himself president, but it’s the Venezuelan people who elect him, not the gringo government,” Maduro declared to his supporters rallying outside the presidential palace. He swiftly branded Guaido a “puppet” of U.S. “imperialism.”
The dramatic escalation came as the Trump administration seeks ways to ramp up pressure on Maduro’s socialist government, which it accuses of widespread human rights abuse, drug trafficking and a host of other crimes. Already, Washington has blacklisted 70 senior Venezuelan officials and entities and put sanctions on some of its export industries.
Venezuelan opposition protesters participate in a demonstration to demand the end of the crisis and in support of the interim presidency of Juan Guaido, in Caracas.(Cristian Hernandez / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Opposition leader and self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido, center, chants slogans as he marches with students during a protest he convened against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, outside Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas.(LUIS ROBAYO / AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro during an event with the members of the Bolivarian National Armed Force in Caracas.(Miraflores Press)
Students of Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas, take part in a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, called by opposition leader and self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido.(LUIS ROBAYO / AFP/Getty Images)
A man shouts against riot police during a demonstration against the government of President Nicol·s Maduro called by the opposition leader self-proclaimed acting president Juan Guaido in Caracas.(Edilzon Gamez / Getty Images)
Members of the Bolivarian National Police stand guard near “Dr. JM de los Rios” Children’s Hospital in Caracas, during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.(FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images)
An opposition demostrator waves a Venezuelan national flag, during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, called by opposition leader and self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido, outside “Dr. JM de los Rios” Children’s Hospital in Caracas.(FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images)
The president of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaido, center, speaks to the press as he arrives at the Parliament headquarters, in the Federal Legislative Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela.(LEONARDO MUNOZ / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)
Venezuelan Prosecutor Tarek William Saab, delivers a statement at the Supreme Court of Justice in Caracas to announce he has barred Venezuela’s National Assembly head and self-proclaimed “acting president” Juan Guaido, from leaving Venezuela and has freezed his assets.(FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images)
People listen to Venezuela’s National Assembly head Juan Guaido during a mass opposition rally against leader Nicolas Maduro in which he declared himself the country’s “acting president”, in Caracas.(FEDERICO PARRA / AFP/Getty Images)
Venezuelan opposition demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
Paramedics rescue a wounded member of the Bolivarian National Guard during clashes with opposition demonstrators in Caracas.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
Juan Guaido, president of the Venezuelan parliament, poses with a copy of the constitution as he announces that he assumes executive powers, in Caracas.(Miguel Gutierrez / EPA/Shutterstock)
Riot police clash with opposition demonstrators during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro on the anniversary of the 1958 uprising that overthrew the military dictatorship, in Caracas, Venezuela.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
Bolivarian National Police officers take position as thousands take to the streets during a protest against President Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.(Miguel Gutierrez/EPA-EFE/REX )
Demonstrators gather in the streets against the government of Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.(Edilzon Gamez / Getty Images)
Riot police clash with opposition demonstrators during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
A vehicle is overturned as demonstrators block a freeway during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela.(YURI CORTEZ / AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-run congress, who declared himself interim president of Venezuela, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation in Caracas.(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
Venezuela’s National Assembly head Juan Guaido speaks to the crowd during a mass opposition rally against leader Nicolas Maduro in which he declared himself the country’s “acting president”, on the anniversary of a 1958 uprising that overthrew military dictatorship, in Caracas.(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)
Riot police clash with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas.(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-government demonstrators clash with police and troops near a National Guard command post in northern Caracas.(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)
Carmen Marcano, a Cotiza neighborhood resident, shows her wounds caused by rubber bullets fired by Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guardsmen during the protest.(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
A riot policeman on a motorcycle points his gun during clashes with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas.(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)
People protest around the Cotiza Bolivarian National Guard headquarters in Caracas.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
Riot police clash with anti-government demonstrators in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores, in Caracas.(Federico Parra / AFP/Getty Images)
A woman passes by graffiti with part of a phrase attributed to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro reading “Time to Fight” in Caracas.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
Empty canisters of tear gas grenades fired by the Bolivarian National Guard during protests in the neighborhood of Los Mecedores in Caracas.(Yuri Cortez / AFP/Getty Images)
Residents of the Cotiza neighborhood in Caracas clean up Jan. 22, a day after isolated protests in response to the arrest of National Guardsmen who mounted an uprising against President Nicolas Maduro.(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)
Venezuela has teetered on the verge of collapse for some time, mired in social and economic chaos that has depleted supplies of food and medicine and sent millions of Venezuelans fleeing as refugees. Roughly 80% of the people here now live in poverty.
In a statement, President Trump said he was recognizing Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela because he is the head of “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people,” a reference to the country’s National Assembly, Venezuela’s legislative body that Maduro has sidelined and replaced with his own legislature stacked with his supporters.
The sequence of events represented a rare and potentially dangerous dive into international diplomacy unusual for this administration. It delivered a diplomatic blow to Maduro, but a much-needed boost to the long-suffering, largely ineffective opposition movement.
The movement was in need of new energy after Maduro’s violent suppression in 2017 of nationwide marches that left protesters dispirited and leaderless. An estimated 165 people died, 15,000 were injured and at least 4,800 arrested.
Wednesday’s march, which occurred on the anniversary of the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, was seen as a test of Guaido’s strength of leadership and ability to summon the masses to the street, a test he seems to have passed.
“Today, on Jan. 23, in my status as National Assembly president before all powerful God, and my colleagues, I swear to formally assume the duties of national executive to achieve the end of usurpation, [form] a transitional government and [hold] free elections,” Guaido told tens of thousands of Venezuelans who crowded Caracas’ downtown streets.
“I am not afraid, [rather] I fear for the people who are [living in] bad times,” Guaido proclaimed.
Maduro was reelected last spring in a disputed election and began a second six-year term on Jan. 10. The U.S. is among dozens of countries that have refused to recognize him as a legitimate president.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump said in a statement. “I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”
Diplomatic ties between Caracas and Washington were already hanging by a thread, and Maduro’s order Wednesday could complete that break.
But Pompeo said late Wednesday that Guaido informed the U.S. government that he intended to maintain diplomatic relations. Consequently, Pompeo said, the U.S. did not plan to withdraw personnel from Venezuela as Maduro demanded.
Washington’s push against Caracas has benefited from unusual unity in Latin America and the Caribbean for efforts to punish Maduro and end his autocratic rule, knitted together in a 12-nation coalition called the Lima Group. In recent months, especially, Venezuela’s two neighbors, Brazil and Colombia, have elected right-wing presidents, further stepping up pressure. They quickly supported the U.S. recognition of Guaido.
However, a significant crack in that unity came later Wednesday when Mexico broke ranks and refused to recognize Guaido. Mexico elected a leftist president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, last year, and he has vowed to follow what he considers a less interventionist foreign policy.
“So far there is no change in diplomatic relations with that country or with their government,” Jesus Ramirez Cuevas, a spokesman for Lopez Obrador, said in Mexico City.
Left unclear is what Washington will do next.
Pompeo called on Guaido to set up a “transitional government” and move to hold elections, essentially establishing a parallel administration that could easily slip into civil warfare.
A senior administration official said additional sanctions were being prepared but declined to give specific details. So far, the U.S. and a number of other countries have imposed sanctions aimed at cutting Venezuela’s revenues, such as its export of gold and sell-off of debt. They have resisted imposing an embargo on oil, whose once-thriving production made Venezuela a rich country. Nor has the administration added Venezuela to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, another measure under consideration.
“We have barely scratched the surface” of punitive measures that can be taken, the official said, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity in keeping with White House rules.
Trump acted following a meeting on Tuesday in the Oval Office with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other congressional hawks on Latin America. Rubio has long pushed for tougher action against Maduro, including opening the possibility of a U.S.-led military coup, as well as recognition of a Guaido government.
Rubio urged Trump to “hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any actions taken against President Guaido, members of the National Assembly, and peaceful protesters.”
One of the marchers Wednesday, psychologist Tachy Osorio, 29, said he was attending the march because of the personal connection he felt with Guaido.
“I like Mr. Guaido, I feel empathy for what he says and for his discourse which reflects what we Venezuelans need at this moment,” Osorio said. “This march is different from the past. It was a spontaneous decision of unity and belief by the people to go out and protest.”
Like Osorio, attorney Dolores Dobarro agreed that Wednesday’s march was different from past protests and said she was “very hopeful” about the new leadership. Maduro jailed a previous popular opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, and banned him from politics.
“Guaido projects calm and we hope that this peaceful protest inspires agreement among those who can help the country emerge from its misery,” Dobarro said.
“What’s different this time is that many poor people are participating and they have been the most impacted by the economic crisis,” she added.
Adrian Cordero, a 32-year-old mechanic, said Guaido is “young, has new ideas and a new face who inspires confidence.”
“All of us want a change, a political change that helps us get over this terrifying crisis,” Cordero said. “We’re hoping for a change that enables us to reunite with our family members who have left the country so as not to die of hunger. The country can’t tolerate this situation.”
The march came two days after a group of dissident National Guard soldiers attacked a military installation in Caracas, stole weapons and issued a plea with others in the armed forces to join their uprising. Government forces quickly put down the rebellion, arrested 27, and dismissed the mutiny as an isolated incident.
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondents Mogollon and Kraul reported from Caracas and Bogota, respectively. Times staff writer Kate Linthicum contributed from Mexico City.
For more on international affairs, follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter