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Venezuela’s president fights on after Trump recognises opponent as leader

Nicolas Maduro ordered US diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours following Washington’s decision to recognise Juan Guaido as president.

Venezuela’s embattled president Nicolas Maduro ordered American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours after President Donald Trump recognised an opposition leader as interim president of the country.

Juan Guaido had declared himself interim president in a defiant speech on Wednesday before masses of anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets to demand Mr Maduro’s removal.

The bold challenge immediately drew recognition from the Trump administration, which called on Mr Maduro to resign and said it would use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.

Mr Maduro did not wait long to respond, saying: “Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president…..I’ve decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government.”

Mr Maduro made the remarks to a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace.

However, Canada as well as Brazil, Colombia and several other Latin American nations followed suit in throwing their support behind Mr Guaido.

Earlier, raising his right hand in union with tens of thousands of supporters, Mr Guaido, the fresh-faced head of the opposition-controlled congress, took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers he says are his right under Venezuela’s constitution and to take over as interim president until he calls new elections.

“Today, January 23 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela,” he told the cheering crowd as he stood behind a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms

Mr Guaido, 35, said he was taking the politically risky step just two weeks after Mr Maduro took his own oath to a second six-year term because it was the only way to rescue Venezuela from “dictatorship” and restore constitutional order.

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Juan Guaido (Fernando Llano/AP)

“We know that this will have consequences,” he shouted, moments before quickly slipping away to an unknown location amid speculation he would soon be arrested.

“To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans.”

Socialist Party boss Diosdado Cabello, widely seen as the second most-powerful person in the country, blasted the US and its “lackeys” in the region for trying to topple Mr Maduro by violent means.

“The Bolivarian revolution doesn’t have an expiration date,” he told a crowd of red-shirted government supporters who then headed to the presidential palace, where Mr Maduro later addressed them.

Mr Guaido’s declaration came as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets accusing the embattled Mr Maduro of usurping power and demanding he step down as the country reels from a crushing economic crisis that has forced millions to flee or go hungry.

Large crowds gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting “Get out Maduro!” in what was the largest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.

“Join us!” the protesters cried out to a line of officers wearing helmets and carrying shields.

“You are also living this crisis!”

Pro-government demonstrators also marched in the capital, at times crossing paths with opposition protesters and shouting “sell outs” and “traitors”.

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Anti-government protesters (Boris Vergara/AP)

Wednesday’s protest was considered a crucial test for the reinvigorated opposition as it seeks to send a forceful message that Mr Maduro no longer has the people’s backing and appeals to the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind the president.

The protests were called to coincide with an historic date for Venezuelans, the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.

Mr Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all issued statements proclaiming US recognition of Mr Guaido and saying the US would take all diplomatic and economic measures necessary to support a transition to a new government.

“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Mr Trump said in his statement.

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Anti-government protesters hold their hands up (Fernando Llano/AP)

Driving the crisis was Mr Maduro’s decision to ignore international opposition and take the presidential oath on January 10 for a second term widely considered illegitimate after his main opponents were banned from running against him.

The events on Wednesday followed a whirlwind week that saw an uprising by a tiny military unit put down by government forces, fires set during protests in poor neighbourhoods and the brief detention by security forces of Mr Guaido.

Mr Guaido, who took the reins of leadership in the opposition-controlled Congress from a long list of better-known predecessors who have been exiled, outlawed or jailed, was dragged from an SUV just over a week ago by intelligence agents but was quickly released amid an international outcry.

Over the last two nights, Venezuelans angry over their country’s spiralling hyperinflation, and food and medical shortages have gathered in the streets banging pots and pans and setting up barricades in protest.

In the city of San Felix, residents set fire to a statue of Mr Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

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Venezuelan Bolivarian National Guardsmen look for anti-government protesters (Fernando Llano/AP)

For much of the past two years, following a deadly crackdown on the 2017 protests and the failure of negotiations ahead of last May’s boycotted presidential election, the coalition of opposition parties has been badly divided over strategy and other differences as millions of desperate Venezuelans fled the country’s hyperinflation and widespread food shortages.

But buoyed by unprecedented international criticism of Mr Maduro, anti-government forces have put aside their infighting and are projecting a united front.

In the run-up to Wednesday’s protests, Mr Guaido crisscrossed Caracas attending outdoor assemblies known as “open cobildos”, for the revolutionary citizen councils held against Spanish colonial rule, pumping up crowds by arguing that Mr Maduro must go for democracy to be restored.

Mr Guaido has been targeting his message to Venezuela’s military, the traditional arbiter of political disputes.

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro walks past a painting of his predecessor, late president Hugo Chavez (Ariana Cubillos/AP)

Mr Maduro, who lacks the military pedigree of his mentor, Mr Chavez, has sought to shore up support from the armed forces by doling out key posts to top generals, including heading the PDVSA oil monopoly that is the source of virtually all of Venezuela’s export earnings.

He has also been playing commander in chief, appearing last week at a military command meeting wearing camouflage fatigues and receiving the blessing of the defence minister, General Vladimir Padrino Lopez.

Press Association

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