Washington (AFP) - The United States on Wednesday recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president, urging the overthrow of hard-left strongman Nicolas Maduro following tainted elections and a spiraling economic crisis.
In a coordinated bid to oust Maduro, Guaido declared himself acting president during a mass demonstration and within minutes was recognized by President Donald Trump as well as the Organization of American States.
Trump said in a statement that the National Assembly, headed by Guaido, is "the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people."
Trump noted that the National Assembly had declared Maduro "illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant."
"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," he said.
Trump urged other countries to follow his lead and promised to "use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy."
Apparently referring to tensions around the demonstrations against the Maduro government, Trump warned: "We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people."
Maduro has repeatedly blamed the nation's woes on the United States, which he accuses of plotting a coup in a continuation of the US history of meddling in Latin America.
- Demanding Maduro to step aside -
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explicitly called for Maduro to exit and said that Guaido would be considered interim president until a new election takes place.
"The Venezuelan people have suffered long enough under Nicolas Maduro's disastrous dictatorship. We call on Maduro to step aside in favor of a legitimate leader reflecting the will of the Venezuelan people," Pompeo said in a statement.
"The United States supports President Guaido as he establishes a transitional government, and leads Venezuela, as the country prepares for free and fair elections," Pompeo said.
Pompeo also renewed the Trump administration's call for the security forces to intervene. A group of 27 soldiers rose up against Maduro on Monday but were quickly arrested.
"We repeat our call to the Venezuelan military and security forces to support democracy and protect all Venezuelan citizens," he said.
Guaido insists he has the constitution on his side but acknowledges he needs the backing of the 365,000-strong military, and has offered an amnesty to any personnel who disavow Maduro.
NGO Citizen Control says around 180 soldiers were arrested last year for conspiring against the government, while 4,000 deserted the National Guard.
Maduro, the heir to leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, won a new term last year in an election widely criticized as tainted.
Venezuela has faced skyrocketing inflation and shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine. Some 2.3 million people have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to the United Nations.