Venezuela's Maduro given 'ultimatum': Hold elections or Guaido to be recognized as president

Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium all said on Saturday they would recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido​ as interim president unless President Nicolas Maduro called fresh elections within eight days.

Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called the 8-day deadline 'absurd'

Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium all said on Saturday they would recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido​, left, as interim president unless President Nicolas Maduro called fresh elections within eight days. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Belgium all said on Saturday they would recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido​ as interim president unless President Nicolas Maduro called fresh elections within eight days.

Guaido, who took the helm of the National Assembly on Jan. 5, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday though Maduro, who has led the oil-rich nation since 2013 and has the support of the armed forces, has refused to stand down.

Maduro cruised to re-election in May last year amid low turnout and allegations of vote-buying by the government. The domestic opposition, Canada, the U.S. and right-leaning Latin American governments declined to recognize the result of the vote.

Under Maduro, Venezuela has sunk into turmoil with food shortages and daily protests amid an economic and political crisis that has sparked mass emigration and inflation that is seen rising to 10 million per cent this year.

"Europe is giving us eight days? Where do you get that you have the power to establish a deadline or an ultimatum to a sovereign people," Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza told the UN Security Council in a debate Saturday. "It's almost childlike."

Arreaza said Maduro's government still hopes to establish communication and dialogue with U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. "That offer stands," he told the council.

Members of the opposition are seen in Las Mercedes neighbourhood of Caracas on Saturday. (Rodrigo Abd/Associated Press)

Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia called the eight-day ultimatum "absurd." Moscow opposes the U.S. efforts to unseat Maduro and has accused Washington of backing a coup attempt, placing Venezuela at the heart of a growing geopolitical duel.

"This is not about foreign intervention in Venezuela," former U.S. diplomat Elliott Abrams, who U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo​ named on Friday to lead U.S. efforts on Venezuela, told the council.

Russia failed in a bid to stop Saturday's meeting of the 15-member Security Council. China, South Africa and Equatorial Guinea voted with Moscow to block the meeting, while nine countries voted in favour of the meeting. Ivory Coast and Indonesia abstained.

"We strongly condemn those who are pushing the Venezuelan society to the edge of a bloodbath. The U.S. are painting a picture of a confrontation between the Maduro regime and the people of Venezuela. This picture is far from reality," Nebenzia told the Security Council.

U.S. urges leaders to 'pick a side'

Pompeo told countries at the UN on Saturday to "pick a side" on Venezuela, urging them to back Guaido and calling for free and fair elections as soon as possible.

"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side ... Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem," Pompeo told the council. "We call on all members of the Security Council to support Venezuela's democratic transition and interim President Guaido's role."​

Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, left, speaks during the UN Security Council meeting on Saturday. On the right is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who encouraged the council to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the constitutional interim president of Venezuela. (Kevin Hagen/Associated Press)

The U.S. pushed for a UN Security Council statement expressing full support for Venezuela's National Assembly as the country's "only democratically elected institution," but was blocked by Russia, China, South Africa and Equatorial Guinea.

"China does not interfere in other countries' internal affairs. We hope the country that accuses others can do likewise itself," said China's UN Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu, referring to the United States.

The United States has signalled it was ready to step up economic measures to try to drive Maduro from power.

Pompeo told reporters on Saturday that he hopes countries "will ensure that they disconnect their financial systems from the Maduro regime and allow assets that belong to the Venezuelan people to go to the rightful governors of that state."

Canadian diplomacy at work

Canada, meanwhile, is another supporter of Guaido.

Canadian diplomats in Caracas have been quietly working for months with their Latin American counterparts to get the country's opposition parties to coalesce behind Guaido, The Canadian Press has reported.

The efforts were made after Guaido, 35, emerged as the one person strong enough to stand against Maduro to end the economic and political spiral that has forced three million Venezuelans from their homes.

The turning point came Jan. 4 when the Lima Group — the bloc that includes Canada and more than a dozen Latin American countries — rejected the legitimacy of Maduro's May 2018 election victory and his Jan. 10 inauguration, while recognizing the "legitimately elected" National Assembly, sources say.

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On Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke with the President of Colombia, Ivan Duque Marquez about the ongoing crisis and "their mutual support and recognition" of Guaido as interim president, a statement from Trudeau's office said.

"They agreed that Canadian and Colombian officials would continue to work together and build international support to promote democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Venezuela, including through the Lima Group," the statement said.

"[Canada's approach has] really been in the planning or development stage for several months," said former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy.

"I think focusing on the Lima Group group in particular, it gives a very strong rationale that the volatility and the actions in Venezuela were having a huge instability factor in the surrounding region," Axworthy told CBC on Saturday.

"You have several thousand people a day crossing borders. It really became a question of regional security. I think there were very solid grounds for organizing around that," he said.

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Canada was listed as one of the 35 countries scheduled to speak at the Security Council meeting.

The session focusing on Venezuela's crisis comes a day after Guaido vowed to remain on the streets until his country has a transitional government, while Maduro dug in and accused his opponents of orchestrating a coup.

In clashing news conferences on Friday, Guaido urged his followers to stage another mass protest next week, while Maduro pushed his call for dialogue.

Maduro also said his government is preparing to face a potential armed conflict with its people before the "coup d'état." He announced that military exercises will be held from Feb. 10-15 to make Venezuela "unassailable."

"The conflict may happen, because they have said they are going to put the Marines in Caracas, and they will send them I don't know where, and so, in each city, in each town; [we will have] a defence plan and a reaction plan for combat and victory," he said.

With files from CBC News, The Associated Press and The Canadian Press