Trump recognizes Venezuela’s opposition leader as head of government

Trump recognizes Venezuela’s opposition leader as head of government

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As Venezuelans commemorate the 61st anniversary of an uprising that saw one of the country’s worst dictators dethroned, U.S. President Donald Trump declared Nicolas Maduro’s presidency “illegitimate,” and encouraged other Western Hemisphere countries to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president.

The announcement comes as people all over the country are taking to the streets to protest Maduro’s presidency — days after his second term in office began following elections that were criticized by Venezuelans and the international community as illegitimate.

“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuela National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” a statement by Trump released by the White House read.

“In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country’s constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant.”

PHOTO: Anti-Maduro protesters attend a rally to protest against the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2019.Cristian Hernandez/EPA via Shutterstock
Anti-Maduro protesters attend a rally to protest against the Venezuelan President in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2019.

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

“We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezualan people,” the statement said.

Since Maduro took power after Chavez’s death, the country has experienced a rapid decline in what was already a struggling economy.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump pauses while speaking about the partial government shutdown, immigration and border security in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.AP
President Donald Trump pauses while speaking about the partial government shutdown, immigration and border security in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019.

Venezuela has been undergoing an unprecedented crisis, with hyperinflation hitting 80,000% percent by the end of 2018, according to Forbes. Since 2014, more than three million people have left the country amid the deepening economic crisis, and food and medicine shortages continue, according to the United Nations.

Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuela National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela.

(MORE: Inside Venezuela: Misery fuels largest exodus in Western Hemisphere)

Maduro’s reign has also been plagued by political oppression and crackdown on protest activity. More than 12,500 people have been arrested while attending a protest, according to Foro Penal, a Venezuelan human rights watchdog organization.

PHOTO: People demonstrate in the vicinity of a members of the Bolivarian National Guard command, in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 21, 2019.Miguel Gutierrez/EPA via Shutterstock
People demonstrate in the vicinity of a members of the Bolivarian National Guard command, in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 21, 2019.

But the country’s opposition has been emboldened by Guaido, the new president of the National Assembly who, with only six days in office, said he was ready to become acting president of the country until legitimate elections could be held. He also asked for military support to do so.

Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power. He has never won the presidency in a free and fair election and has maintained his grip of power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him.

Venezuela’s opposition has been broadcasting Wednesday’s planned protests for weeks. In parts of the country, people took to the streets as early as Monday, leading to the arrest of 43 people in just 48 hours.

PHOTO: Venezuelas President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech at the Fuerte Tiuna Military Complex, in Caracas, Jan. 15, 2019.Marcelo Garcia/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro delivers a speech at the Fuerte Tiuna Military Complex, in Caracas, Jan. 15, 2019.

Alfredo Romero, executive director of Foro Penal, confirmed the arrests to ABC News, adding that some of those detained are injured.

While the crisis in Venezuela has spiraled into chaos in the last several months, Guaido has emerged as a leader of the opposition after being elected president in December 2018.

The National Assembly voted to declare Maduro illegitimate and remove him from office this month, allowing Guaido to be chosen as acting head of state.

(MORE: 3 dead in Venezuela after widespread outage leaves hospitals without power)

In a statement released on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Maduro to step aside.

“The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolas Maduro’s disastrous dictatorship,” the statement begins. “We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people. The United States supports President Guaido as he establishes a transitional government, and leads Venezuela, as the country prepares for free and fair elections. We urge all Venezuelans to support peacefully this democratic process, as granted in the 1999 Constitution.”

“We will work closely with the legitimately elected National Assembly to facilitate the transition of Venezuela back to democracy and the rule of law, consistent with the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” the Pompeo statement continues.

The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolas Maduro’s disastrous dictatorship.

“The Venezuelan people are clamoring for a free and democratic Venezuela,” Pompeo said in the statement. “As we have said before, the United States, with the international community, including the Organization of American States, the Lima Group, and the European Union, support the Venezuelan people as they seek to restore their democracy. We repeat our call to the Venezuelan military and security forces to support democracy and protect all Venezuelan citizens.

“The new Venezuelan government carries the flame of democracy on behalf of Venezuela. The United States pledges our continued support to President Guaido, the National Assembly, and the Venezuelan people.”

Trump’s and Pompeo’s declarations come a day after Vice President Mike Pence made a similar statement, addressing the people of Venezuela through a video posted to Twitter.

“Nicolas Maduro is a dictator with no legitimate claim to power,” Pence said in his address. “He has never won the presidency in a free and fair election and has maintained his grip of power by imprisoning anyone who dares to oppose him.”

“The United States joins with all freedom-loving nations in recognizing your National Assembly as the last vestige of democracy in your country, for it is the only body elected by you, the people,” Pence said.

(MORE: Everything you need to know about the crisis in Venezuela)

“As such, the United States supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaido, the President of the National Assembly, to assert that body’s constitutional powers, declare Maduro a usurper, and call for the establishment of a transitional government.”

ABC News’ Conor Finnegan and Meredith McGraw contributed to this report.

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