In Venezuela, Opposition Leader Juan Guaidó Declares Himself Interim President

Jan 23, 2019
Originally published on January 23, 2019 7:40 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's been a day of high political drama in Venezuela. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that President Nicolas Maduro resign. Opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president. He took an oath of office in front of the crowds in the capital, Caracas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: Shortly after that, the Trump administration recognized Guaido as the transitional president. Maduro responded by cutting off diplomatic ties with Washington and announced he's kicking out U.S. diplomats. NPR's Philip Reeves joins us now from Venezuela's capital. And, Phil, this sounds like an extraordinary day. Can you tell us, what's the latest update?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Well, we have a major political crisis here, and it's not at all clear how it will end. This started out as a day of nationwide mass protests in Venezuela. These protests were called by the opposition who control the Congress - the National Assembly as it's called here. The National Assembly no longer recognizes Maduro as president, saying his election for second term, which has just started, was a fraud. And these protests were to scale up the pressure on Maduro to go.

Then the day took an extraordinary twist when, in front of that huge crowd as you heard of supporters in Caracas, Juan Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president, saying he'll oversee the nation until new and fair elections can be held. The U.S., Canada and several Latin American nations immediately formally recognized him. And that's what's created this extraordinary and highly volatile situation with Maduro defiantly holding onto power while his chief opponent, Guaido, saying he's the president and many nations, including the most powerful nation on the block, the U.S., agreeing with him.

CORNISH: We mentioned the expulsion of U.S. diplomats. Has there been any other reaction from Maduro?

REEVES: Well, Maduro went on TV in front of his presidential palace where there was a big rally of his supporters today and denounced this as an attempted coup by the opposition and the United States. He said, as you mentioned, he's - that he's severing diplomatic ties with the U.S. such as they are. And he announced that he's kicking out U.S. diplomatic personnel, giving them 72 hours to leave. But meanwhile, there are reports that Guaido is encouraging the diplomatic community here to disobey Maduro's orders. So we really are in uncharted waters.

We don't know whether Maduro will now move against Guaido. The U.S. is making it clear that there could be a very strong response from them if he does so. The White House is saying no options are being ruled out. Maduro is being publicly defiant. But I think his future might depend now on whether he can maintain the support of the military.

CORNISH: To go back to Guaido for a moment, what did he have to say to the crowds in his speech?

REEVES: Well, it was really an extraordinary moment. I mean, he appeared before this huge crowd of people. He said that he would assume the powers of the presidency to secure an end to what he called the usurpation, which is the word they used for Maduro. And when he did that, there was a huge cheer.

CORNISH: What are protesters saying in the streets about all of this?

REEVES: I think they are embracing this moment, those that opposed Maduro. They're happy now to speak out, and when they do, they say they're desperate for change. I mean, listen, for instance, to one of the crowd, Carlos Gonzales, who's a teacher.

CARLOS GONZALES: This government - they destroy our democracy, and I want our democracy back. And our rights to all Venezuelan citizens, I want our rights back. It's what I want.

REEVES: I asked Gonzales about what he thought of the role being played here by the U.S. in pushing for Maduro and recognizing his opponent, the president of the National Assembly. And Gonzales was very happy about that. He said people have been waiting for the world outside to come to their aid, and he was pleased about it.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Philip Reeves. Philip, thank you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRHYME SONG, "COURTESY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.