Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.
France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.
The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.
Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.
Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.
Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.
“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.
In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.
Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.
He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.
Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.
A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.
“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.
Russia accused Europe of meddling.
“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.
Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.
Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.
But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.
Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.
In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.
“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”
Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.
In less than a month, Juan Guaidó has risen from obscure, junior lawmaker to self-proclaimed interim president of Venezuela and the most serious threat yet to the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro.
Guaidó, who defied Maduro by taking the oath of office last Wednesday, claims to lead a transitional government that will call free elections and return Venezuela to democracy. The 35-year-old was immediately recognized as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by the United States, Canada and most Latin American nations and received widespread support from European countries.
In a speech Friday to cheering supporters at an outdoor plaza in Caracas, Guaidó proclaimed: “We have awakened from the nightmare, brothers and sisters.”
Maduro, who has led Venezuela into food shortages, hyperinflation and political repression during six years in office, is refusing to budge. His ruling Socialist party controls nearly all government institutions. On Thursday, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López declared that the nation’s powerful armed forces — widely considered to be propping up the government — recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s true president.
But at least for now, Guaidó is breathing new life into an opposition movement that had been deeply demoralized by internal power struggles and government repression.
“Thirty days ago, the opposition was demobilized and fractured with no leadership,” said Michael Penfold, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “But that’s not the case anymore. Guaidó represents a sparkle of hope.”
“I think Guaidó is delivering exactly what the opposition wanted at this point, which is a bold, risk-taking response,” said Javier Corrales, a Venezuela expert and professor of political science at Amherst College.
A youthful-looking industrial engineer, Guaidó, got his start in politics by organizing student protests against the late Hugo Chávez, who ushered in Venezuela’s socialist revolution two decades ago. In 2013, Chávez died of cancer and was succeeded by Maduro.
As a member of the Popular Will party, Guaidó in 2015 won a seat to the National Assembly – Venezuela’s legislature – amid an opposition sweep of congressional elections. But that momentum quickly stalled.
Anti-government demonstrations were crushed by security forces while an effort to remove Maduro through a recall election was vetoed by the government. The opposition’s most charismatic leaders were arrested, forced into exile or stripped of their right to run for public office. Last year, Maduro won another six-year term in a presidential election widely considered a sham by international observers.
Still, the opposition was determined to challenge Maduro’s grip on power. It hatched an audacious plan to coincide with the start this month of what many view as Maduro’s illegitimate second term. Guaidó became its leader.
Partly because more prominent politicians have been sidelined, the National Assembly in early January named Guaidó as its president. Venezuela’s constitution states that the head of the National Assembly takes over should the presidency become vacant, as the opposition claims it has under Maduro.
After consulting with U.S. and Latin American officials, according to the Associated Press, the opposition organized nationwide street marches on Wednesday and held a make-shift outdoor ceremony where Guaidó took the oath of office and launched his parallel government.
In what amounted to his inaugural speech, Guaidó called on military officers to withdraw their support from Maduro.
“It has to be the Venezuelan people, the armed forces, and the international community that allow us to assume power, which we will not let slip away,” Guaidó told cheering supporters in what amounted to his inaugural address.
At least one high-ranking military official, Col. José Luis Silva, who serves as military attaché at the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, has heeded Guaidó’s call. “As the Venezuelan defense attaché in the United States, I do not recognize Mr. Nicolás Maduro as president of Venezuela,” Silva said in an interview Saturday with el Nuevo Herald.
Guaidó lacks any control over government ministries but he is more than just a figurehead. Analysts say that swelling international support for him, coupled with Maduro’s diplomatic isolation, strengthens Guaidó’s claim to the presidency.
Frank Mora, who heads the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, said Guaidó’s swearing-in ceremony could become a watershed moment, similar to the 2010 episode in Tunisia when an angry fruit vender set himself on fire and helped ignite the Arab Spring.
Alternative leadership in Caracas has also opened the door for the Trump administration to squeeze the vital flow of petrodollars to the Maduro government — which counts on oil for 95 percent of its export earnings.
One option would be to send the proceeds from purchases of Venezuelan oil to foreign accounts that could be set up and controlled by Guaidó’s governing team, said Francisco Rodríguez, a former economic advisor to Venezuela’s National Assembly. He said that diverting oil funds to Guaidó would have a “huge impact” on the Venezuelan economy and put more pressure on Maduro to leave office.
“The pieces are starting to fit together for a peaceful transition in Venezuela,” said Benjamin Scharifker, a leading Venezuelan intellectual and an opposition activist.
But Guaidó also faces new risks.
Earlier this month, he was briefly detained by security forces and fears are growing that he could be arrested. At Friday’s rally, Guaidó acknowledged that possibility but told supporters that if he were ever kidnapped, they should press ahead with nonviolent protests.