Venezuela's Maduro pulls diplomats out of U.S.
Tensions mount after Trump backs Juan Guaido, who declared himself Venezuela's interim president
Venezuelans headed into uncharted political waters Thursday, with the young leader of a newly united and combative opposition claiming to hold the presidency over socialist Nicolas Maduro, who is digging in for a fight with the Trump administration.
Maduro, Venezuela's contested president, on Thursday ordered all of Venezuela's diplomats home from the United States and defiantly closed the country's embassy as relations between the two nations rapidly collapsed.
He warned that if U.S. officials "have any sense" they will pull out their own diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas.
"They believe they have a colonial hold in Venezuela, where they decide what they want to do," Maduro said in an address broadcast live on state TV. "You must fulfil my order from the government of Venezuela."
Tensions have soared between the two nations after the Trump administration recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido, who claimed Wednesday to hold the presidency and vowed to remove Maduro, calling him a "dictator."
Maduro retaliated by severing relations with the U.S. and giving American diplomats 72 hours to leave Venezuela.
Washington initially said it would ignore the order, but the State Department announced late Thursday that non-essential diplomats and embassy staff would leave the country.
The department says it's taking the step for security reasons and that the embassy in Caracas will stay open.
All eyes have been on the military, a traditional arbiter of political disputes in Venezuela, as a critical indicator of whether the opposition will succeed in establishing a new government.
Venezuela's top military brass pledged their unwavering support to Maduro, delivering vows of loyalty earlier Thursday before rows of green-uniformed officers on state television.
A half-dozen generals belonging largely to district commands and with direct control over thousands of troops joined Maduro in accusing the U.S. of meddling in Venezuela's affairs and said they would uphold the socialist leader's rule.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, a key Maduro ally, later delivered his own proclamation, dismissing efforts to install a "de-facto parallel government" as tantamount to a coup.
"It's not a war between Venezuelans that will solve our problems, it's dialogue" he said.
Guaido rallies support
Mass anti-government demonstrations on Wednesday left at least a dozen dead in the escalating conflict with Maduro, who has increasingly been accused of undemocratic behaviour by the United States and many other nations in the region.
Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of the National Assembly, swore himself in before a mass of demonstrators in Caracas. He said it was the only way to end the Maduro "dictatorship" in Venezuela, which has seen millions flee in recent years to escape sky-high inflation and food shortages.
Guaido invoked an article in Venezuela's constitution that allows the head of the National Assembly to assume power for 30 days if the presidency is vacant — which Guaido and his supporters believe is the case, arguing that Maduro's presidency is invalid because he stole the election.
In his first public comments since taking power, Guaido said late Thursday on television network Univision that he would consider granting amnesty to Maduro and his allies if they helped return Venezuela to democracy.
"Amnesty is on the table," he said. "Those guarantees are for all those who are willing to side with the constitution to recover the constitutional order."
Guaido has said he needs the backing of three critical groups: the people, the international community and the military. While the protests drew tens of thousands to the streets, and over a dozen nations in the region are pledging support, the military's backing is far from certain.
Though many rank-and-file troops suffer the same hardships as countless other Venezuelans when it comes to meeting basic needs like feeding their families, Maduro has worked to cement their support with bonuses and other special benefits.
In a video addressing the military earlier this week, Guaido said the constitution requires them to disavow Maduro after his May 2018 re-election, which was widely condemned by the international community because his main opponents were banned from running.
International response divided
Much of the international community is rallying behind Guaido, with the U.S., Canada and numerous Latin American and European countries announcing that they recognized his claim to the presidency.
The Canadian Embassy in Caracas was closed Thursday due to the protests.
Meanwhile, Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Turkey have voiced their backing for Maduro's government.
China's foreign ministry called on the United States to stay out of the crisis, while Russia's deputy foreign minister warned the U.S. against any military intervention in Venezuela.
Russia has been propping up Maduro with arms deliveries and loans. Maduro visited Moscow in December, seeking Russia's political and financial support. Over the last decade, China has given Venezuela $65 billion in loans, cash and investment. Venezuela owes more than $20 billion.
Emergency meeting of OAS
Diplomats at the Organization of American States (OAS) held an emergency meeting Thursday on the Venezuelan crisis, during which 16 nations recognized Guaido as interim president.
Meanwhile, many Venezuelans were looking for Guaido to re-emerge and provide guidance on the opposition's next steps.
Guaido, a virtually unknown lawmaker at the start of the year, has re-ignited the hopes of Venezuela's often beleaguered opposition by taking a rebellious tack amid Venezuela's crushing economic crisis.
The latest events cap an especially tumultuous week for the troubled South American nation.
On Monday, a few dozen national guardsmen seized a stockpile of assault rifles in a pre-dawn uprising that was quickly quelled,although residents in a nearby slum showed support for the mutineers by burning cars and stoning security forces.
Disturbances flared up that night in other working-class neighbourhoods where the government has traditionally enjoyed strong support, and continued into the late hours Tuesday.
With files from CBC News and Reuters