Crisis in Venezuela

Trump recognises Opposition leader as president; US diplomats expelled and bloodletting continues

Thursday, January 24, 2019

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THE row between Venezuela and the United States deepened yesterday when Caracas gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country after President Donald Trump said he recognised Opposition Leader Juan Guiado as interim leader of the troubled nation.

“Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president... I've decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist US Government,” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro told a crowd of red-shirted supporters gathered at the presidential palace.

Maduro was sworn into a contested second term two weeks ago in a move condemned by dozens of nations.

The US president threw his support behind the Venezuela Opposition leader after he declared himself as the legitimate president in a defiant speech yesterday before masses of anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets to demand President Nicolas Maduro's resignation.

Trump, when asked yesterday whether the US would use military action in Venezuela to support the ouster of President Maduro his response was ambiguous.

“We are not considering anything, but all options are on the table,” Trump told reporters following a roundtable discussion at the White House on medical costs.

Trump did not clarify what he meant by “all options”.

His administration has imposed several rounds of sanctions aimed at pressuring the government of the South American country.

In a statement, Juan Guaido urged all foreign embassies in the country to disobey Maduro's orders and not remove their diplomats. Although the message didn't name the US, it seemed to be issued in response to Maduro's late afternoon announcement that he was severing relations with the United States.

The 35-year-old opposition leader says it was his right under Venezuela's constitution to take over the presidency until new elections can be called. He and his supporters accused Maduro of usurping power after being sworn into a contested new term.

Canada also said it was recognising Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela.

Two officials familiar with the matter confirmed the Canadian position, but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly.

Analysts said last night that recognition of the Opposition leader by the US and Canada will increase international pressure on Maduro and could result in severe economic consequences for his government.

Three South American nations are recognising the Venezuela Opposition leader as interim president.

The leaders of Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay all quickly expressed their support after Guaido took a symbolic oath before thousands of supporters.

Colombia President Ivan Duque said his nation would accompany Guaido “in this process of transition toward democracy”.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also said that he would support the 35-year-old lawmaker “so that peace and democracy return to Venezuela”.

Paraguayan 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,” Abdo Benitez said.

Russia, which has long supported Venezuela's socialist regime, was sharply critical of US President Donald Trump's recognition of an Opposition politician who has declared himself the country's legitimate interim president.

“I think that in this developing situation the United States is trying to carry out an operation to organise the next colour revolution in Venezuela,” the deputy chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the upper house of parliament, Andrei Klimov, told state news agency RIA-Novosti. “Colour revolution” is a Russian term for the popular uprisings that unseated leaders in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

“I do not think that we can recognise this; it is, in essence, a coup,” another committee member, Vladimir Dzhabrailov, was quoted as saying by the Interfax agency.

Russia is a major political ally of Venezuela, and Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, is heavily invested in the South American nation's oil fields, which produce less crude each month.

And at least two Latin American governments are standing behind Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivian President Evo Morales has expressed his “solidarity” with the Venezuelan people and condemned what he called an “imperialist attack”.

On Twitter he said: “Our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and @Nicolas Maduro, in these decisive hours when the claws of imperialism are once again trying to deal a death blow on democracy and self-determination on the peoples of South America. We will not be the backyard of the US again.”

A spokesman for Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador also said that Mexico would continue recognising Maduro as Venezuela's president.

Jesus Ramirez Cuevas told Milenio television: “We maintain our position of neutrality in the Venezuelan conflict.”

He also said: “The Mexican Government is analysing the situation in Venezuela. Until now, there is no change in its diplomatic relations with that country nor with its government.”

Meanwhile, the political standoff has resulted in more bloodshed in Venezuela. Authorities said two protesters were killed and five others injured in anti-government demonstrations in the city of San Cristobal.

A spokeswoman for the state of Tachira's health agency said the two demonstrators were shot to death but provided no further details. At least one other person has been killed in this week's unrest.

At the same time, demonstrators in Caracas were facing off against security forces firing rubber bullets and tear gas as they marched through the capital.

Thousands of Maduro's followers gathered outside the presidential palace, heeding socialist leader Diosdado Cabello's call to protect the embattled leader.

Last night, a US senator from Florida called for designating Venezuela a “terrorist state” and imposing additional sanctions in order to pressure President Nicolas Maduro to resign.

Senator Rick Scott, the junior senator from Florida, told reporters in Washington that Maduro “is clearly a terrorist”.

Scott added: “The way Maduro has treated his citizens is disgusting.”

The senator urged US President Donald Trump to “look at every sanction he can have” and impose penalties on anybody doing business with or supporting Maduro. He said he expects Guiado, who has declared himself interim president, will call elections “as quickly as possible”.

Florida is home to tens of thousands of Venezuelans who have fled the chaos in their country in recent years.

And head of the Organization of American States (OAS) says that the two-year process initiated by Venezuela to leave the organisation was interrupted after Guaido declared himself president of the South American nation.

Luis Almagro said Wednesday: “Obviously the clock is stopped from today.”

Guaido presides over the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which adopted a document Tuesday expressing its intention to remain in the OAS and appoint ex-legislator Gustavo Tarre Briceno as special representative.

Maduro had begun the process of leaving the entity in April 2017, alleging that Almagro exceeded his duties by criticising a member state.

Venezuelans were yesterday holding rallies across Spain against the government of Nicolas Maduro and in support of an opposition leader who has declared himself interim president of the country.

The rallies were staged in many provincial capitals, with major protests in Tenerife, Barcelona and Madrid. They were timed to coincide with marches in the streets of Venezuela.

Organisers said that around 7,000 protesters gathered in a central square of the Spanish capital, where there is a large Venezuelan community.

The protesters cheered when exiled members of the Venezuelan opposition announced that the US Government had recognised the interim leadership of Juan Guaido.

They called on Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to follow the administration of US President Donald Trump in endorsing Guaido.

Last night, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights told the administration of President Nicolas Maduro that social protest and freedom of expression were “fundamental values” in any democratic society.

The human rights body of the OAS States said repression of demonstrations through excessive use of force may be a grave violation to fundamental rights.

The commission said in a press release that the Venezuelan crisis has deteriorated since Maduro took office on January 10 for a second six year-term.

– See related story on Pages 8 & 9

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