Trump rebukes Maduro, recognizes Guaido as Venezuela leader

Margaret Talev and Andrew Rosati
Venezuela's National Assembly head Juan Guaido declares himself the country's "acting president" during a mass opposition rally against leader Nicolas Maduro, on the anniversary of 1958 uprising that overthrew military dictatorship in Caracas on January 23, 2019.

President Donald Trump recognized Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela Wednesday minutes after the opposition leader declared himself the head of state, in the U.S.’s most provocative move yet against the leftist regime of Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro responded by breaking diplomatic relations with the U.S., giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country.

Guaido, 35, is the president of the Venezuela National Assembly, which Maduro doesn’t recognize. Venezuelans took to the streets in the biggest opposition protests since mid-2017 to back Guaido and increase pressure on Maduro.

“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. He said that because the country’s National Assembly had declared Maduro illegitimate, “the office of the presidency is therefore vacant.”

Shortly before Trump’s statement, Guaido said in a webcast from a protest in Caracas that he would assume the powers of the Venezuela presidency. He invoked a constitutional amendment that allows for the head of the legislature to lead a caretaker government until new elections can be held.

Since taking the helm of the legislature on Jan. 5, Guaido has aggressively pushed the military and the international community to recognize him as the rightful head of state. After Trump’s statement, Brazil, Colombia and Canada also recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, as did Peru and Chile.

“I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as interim president of Venezuela to achieve the end of the usurpation,” Guaido said on stage in East Caracas before thousands of Venezuelans who rallied around him on Wednesday. The crowd cheered and sang Venezuela’s national anthem after Guaido took the oath of office.

The U.S. has steadily expanded economic sanctions and denunciations of Maduro since Trump took office, all but urging that Venezuelans overturn their government. Venezuela’s dollar bonds, which have gained 25 percent on average this year, rallied further on Wednesday as the opposition increased pressure on Maduro. While most of Venezuela’s bonds are in default, investors believe regime change could usher in plans to fix the economy and restructure the debt.

The Trump administration has also prepared to sanction crude oil exports from the country, according to people familiar with the matter, but hasn’t decided whether to take that step. Maduro’s reaction to Guaido’s move will help dictate whether the administration enacts the sanctions, the people said.

Trump told reporters at the White House that “all options are on the table” for the U.S. to use against the Maduro regime, though he said he isn’t currently considering military action.

A senior Trump administration official, speaking to reporters on condition of anonymity on Wednesday, stressed the U.S. still has ample economic and diplomatic leverage to exert influence on the regime.

The official suggested Trump would impose additional sanctions if Maduro doesn’t immediately turn over control of Venezuela’s finances to Guaido.

White House officials already warned some U.S. refiners earlier this month that the Trump administration was considering sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports and advised them to seek out alternative sources of heavy crude.

Oil companies have beseeched the Trump administration not to take the step, warning the action could disadvantage Gulf and East Coast refiners designed to handle the Venezuela’s heavy crude and cause U.S. gasoline prices to spike.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence called this week for the Venezuelan people to “make your voices heard.”

“Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power,” Pence said in a video posted Tuesday on social media, a day ahead of nationwide protests called by Guaido to rally an opposition demoralized by the Maduro government’s oppressive tactics and the nation’s shattered economy.

The country’s loyalist Supreme Court has announced that it would depose Guaido and nullify the assembly’s motion declaring Maduro’s rule invalid. The U.S. move to recognize Guaido risks a backlash, as Maduro is sure to warn that American “Yankees” are backing a coup against his government. But even pointing to a checkered history of U.S. involvement in Latin American political affairs has worn thin for many Venezuelans and opponents of Maduro throughout the region.

“We encourage other Western Hemisphere governments to recognize 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,” Trump said. “We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people.”

Guaido has sought a transition government and has called for new elections. Guaido and his supporters say Maduro’s latest term is illegitimate; about 60 countries concluded the election was fraudulent.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has pressed for U.S. action against Maduro, praised Trump’s move.

“During our various conversations on Venezuela the president has made it clear that he will use the full weight of the United States to press for the restoration of democracy and constitutional legitimacy in Venezuela,” Rubio said in a statement. “I also know the president will hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any actions taken against President Guaido, members of the National Assembly, and peaceful protesters.”

With assistance from Larry Liebert, Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Ari Natter and Toluse Olorunnipa.