President Donald Trump has made the extraordinary step of recognising an interim president in Venezuela, taking to Twitter to declare his support for opposition leader Juan Guaido after a week of deadly protests.
The troubled South American country’s armed forces have been stamping out protests all week, including a brief uprising at a military stockade yesterday.
The heightened tension led to today’s anti-government demonstrations, attended by hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have lost faith in the country’s president Nicolas Maduro.
Under Mr Maduro, Venezuela has been in the grips of a severe economic downturn and a humanitarian crisis since 2013.
But now, the tide could be turning after the US announced it officially recognised Mr Guaido as President.
“The citizens of Venezuela have suffered for too long at the hands of the illegitimate Maduro regime,” Mr Trump wrote.
Despite President Trump’s support, it’s become clear Mr Maduro will not go without a fight.
Mr Maduro announced on Wednesday he was breaking off diplomatic ties with the United States.
“I’ve decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist government of the United States,” said Mr Maduro to thousands of cheering supporters in Caracas.
“Get out! Leave Venezuela, here there’s dignity, damn it,” he said, giving the US delegation 72 hours to quit the country.
‘WE KNOW THIS WILL HAVE CONSEQUENCES’
Speaking to his tens of thousands of supporters in the country’s capital, Mr Guaido was photographed raising his right hand in unison with the crowd.
“We know that this will have consequences,” Mr Guaido told the crowd.
“To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans.”
“I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as Acting President of Venezuela to end the usurpation, (install) a transitional government and hold free elections.”
Mr Guaido said it is his right under Venezuela’s constitution to take over the presidency until new elections can be called.
President Nicolas Maduro was sworn in to a contested second term two weeks ago in a move condemned by dozens of nations.
Recognition of Mr Guaido by the US has put unbearable international pressure on Mr Maduro to step down and could result in severe economic consequences for his government amid an already painful economic crisis in the once prosperous oil-producing nation.
Immediately after Mr Guaido’s rousing speech, the Trump administration released a statement encouraging other countries to recognise the interim President.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken against Maduro and his regime and demand freedom and the rule of law,” the statement read.
“I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.
“We encourage other western hemisphere governments to recognise National Assembly President Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela, and we will work constructively with them in support of his efforts to restore constitutional legitimacy.”
Canada has since recognised Mr Guaido as the interim President as well as the leaders of Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.
Colombia President Ivan Duque said his nation would accompany Mr Guaido “in this process of transition toward democracy”.
And Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro said that he would support the 35-year-old “so that peace and democracy return to Venezuela”.
In Paraguay, President Mario Abdo Benitez said on Twitter that his country supported Venezuela’s interim President Juan Guaido.
“Count on us to embrace freedom and democracy again,” Mr Benitez said.
MILITARY QUELLS SOLDIERS’ REVOLT
Security forces put down a pre-dawn uprising by national guardsmen that triggered violent street protests earlier this week.
Venezuela’s government said on Monday it had suppressed a military revolt after a group of officers stole weapons and kidnapped several officials, as a video posted online showed a sergeant demanding the removal of Mr Maduro.
Some two dozen officers attacked a National Guard outpost in the Caracas neighbourhood of Cotiza, 1km from the presidential Miraflores Palace, where they met “firm resistance,” the government said. Witnesses reported hearing gunshots at about 3am.
Protesters later burned rubbish and a car outside the outpost, where the 25 officers were arrested, in a sign of growing tensions following Mr Maduro’s inauguration to a second term that governments around the world have called illegitimate.
The uprising triggered further protests in a poor neighbourhood just a few kilometres from Venezuela’s presidential palace. It was dispersed with tear gas as residents set fire to barricades and chanted demands that Mr Maduro leave power.
WHY IS VENEZUELA IN CRISIS?
Venezuela was once one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations.
But the oil-rich country plummeted into crisis under socialist president Nicolas Maduro.
While Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves, a fall in prices coupled with corruption and mismanagement under two decades of socialist rule have left the country in chaos.
Most migrants say they are fleeing Venezuela’s imploding economy.
Mr Maduro has dismissed the migration figures as “fake news” created to justify foreign intervention in Venezuela’s affairs.
He has urged his country’s people to “stop cleaning toilets abroad” and return home.
Mr Maduro was re-elected in May in a vote that dozens of foreign governments described as rigged.
But he insists the election was free and fair and says the situation was the result of an “economic war” led by the opposition and business leaders who are arbitrarily raising prices.
In August, stunning photographs captured by Reuters highlighted the reality of hyperinflation in the socialist dictatorship, where enormous stacks of nearly worthless bolivars were required to purchase basic goods.
A 2.4kg chicken was pictured next to 14,600,000 bolivars at a street market in capital Caracas on August 16. With the current exchange rate, it’s worth just $3.04.
Another photo showed a single roll of toilet paper next to 2,600,000 bolivars, which is worth just 55 cents.
Venezuelans were previously able to enter Colombia and Ecuador using only paper ID cards. About half of those who have made the journey so far don’t have passports.
But obtaining a passport in Venezuela is close to impossible with the country struggling with shortages of paper and ink.