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Two men are claiming to be president of Venezuela, so what exactly is going on?

The current political crisis has been years in the making.

Updated Jan 24th 2019, 12:23 PM

ven A demonstrator with a gas mask jumps over fire amid collisions with security forces in Caracas yesterday. Source: Rafael Hernandez/DPA/PA Images

TWO MEN ARE claiming to be the president of Venezuela, so what exactly is going on?

It has been a dramatic 24 hours in the South American country, to put it mildly.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared himself president – a move backed by the United States and other major countries, leading to President Nicolás Maduro ordering American diplomats out of Venezuela.

The current political situation has been years in the making, with crises happening across the board – in terms of the economy, food shortages, poor healthcare facilities and increasing crime.

As detailed by the New York Times here, Venezuela once had Latin America’s richest economy, buoyed by massive oil reserves. However, under Maduro and his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, the country’s economy spiralled into corruption and debt.

The move by Guaidó to declare himself president came as thousands of rival protesters jammed the streets of Caracas, at times clashing with riot police. It also capped days of political drama that has seen 13 people killed in two days of unrest, the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict told AFP.

Thousands of Venezuelans abroad — from Madrid to Lima to Santiago in Chile — welcomed Guaidó’s pronouncement.

“I swear to formally assume the national executive powers as acting president of Venezuela to end the usurpation, (install) a transitional government and hold free elections,” 35-year-old Guaidó told a throng of cheering supporters.

juan2 Juan Guaidó declaring himself Head of State at a rally in front of supporters in Caracas yesterday. Source: Boris Vergara/DPA/PA Images

Within minutes, US President Donald Trump issued a statement declaring Maduro “illegitimate” and calling the National Assembly “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people”.

A dozen regional countries soon followed suit, with Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Canada among those backing Guaidó, although Mexico and Cuba stood firm in support of Maduro — as did the country’s powerful military.

A furious Maduro responded by breaking off diplomatic ties with the “imperialist” US government, giving its diplomats 72 hours to leave. The State Department said it did not recognize Maduro as president anymore so his order meant nothing.

“Get out! Leave Venezuela, here there’s dignity, damn it,” shouted Maduro to the cheers of thousands supporters outside the presidential palace in Caracas.

Guaidó retorted with an open letter urging foreign powers to maintain their diplomatic presence in the country.

Maduro’s isolation was starkly apparent as the international community closed ranks around Guaidó — and against the leftist leader, reelected in May in snap elections boycotted by the opposition and denounced around the world.

In Washington DC, a top administration official issued a stern warning to Maduro’s regime not to use force against the opposition.

nic Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gives his annual address to the nation on 14 January. Source: Ariana Cubillos/AP/Press Association Images

“If Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence, if they choose to harm any of the National Assembly members … all options are on the table for the United States in regards to action to be taken,” the official said.

In Brussels, EU Council President Donald Tusk said that “unlike Maduro” Guaidó’s National Assembly has “a democratic mandate from Venezuelan citizens”.

And the head of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, told Guaidó: “You have all our recognition to launch the return of democracy to the country.”

Seeking protection 

Three Venezuelan lawyers have asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to grant precautionary measures to protect opposition Guaidó, his wife and his daughter.

The request, shared with The Associated Press by lawyer Ignacio Alvarez, argues that the measure is needed to safeguard the life, personal integrity and personal freedom of Guaidó and his immediate family.

The document, filed only hours after Guaidó declared himself interim president of the country, states that the request does not equal to a recognition of the legitimacy of the Maduro administration.

The human rights body of the OAS has the authority to grant precautionary measures as a way to request State protection for people at urgent and grave risk of suffering irreparable harm.

Tanks and tear gas 

Guaidó’s declaration coincided with the first mass street protests in Venezuela since 125 died in clashes between April and July 2017.

It also came shortly after Venezuela’s Supreme Court — dominated by Maduro loyalists — ordered a criminal investigation of the National Assembly for trying to depose the president.

Thousands of Maduro supporters, many wearing red, converged outside the presidential palace, Miraflores, to oppose what they see as a US-backed opposition coup attempt.

But elsewhere in Caracas, tens of thousands of opposition supporters, many dressed in white, chanted, “Guaidó, friend, the people are with you” as they waved Venezuelan flags.

“Brothers and sisters, today I step forward with you in the knowledge that we are in a dictatorship,” Guaidó said.

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“I have faith and hope in Guaidó, a young lad who can help us to go forward,” 49-year-old Florangel Rodriguez told AFP.

ven2 A demonstrator is covered in blood after clashes with security forces following a protest against Maduro in Caracas yesterday. Source: Rayner Pena/DPA/PA Images

Tensions were running high, with riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at opposition protesters in one Caracas suburb, while television pictures also showed armoured vehicles in the capital.

Speaking from a balcony at the presidential palace, Maduro lashed out at Trump, denouncing his “extremist policy” as “a very serious folly”.

Trying to impose a government by extra-constitutional means, we cannot accept that.

Maduro appealed for the support of the armed forces — which pledged its continuing loyalty to him.

“The nation’s soldiers don’t accept a president imposed by obscure interests, nor one self-proclaimed outside of the law,” Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino tweeted.

The armed forces “will defend our constitution and is the guarantor of national sovereignty”, he said.

‘The people are suffering’ 

Since being elected president of the National Assembly in December, Guaidó has managed to rally a divided opposition. He dismissed fears he could be arrested, saying: “No, I’m afraid for our people who are suffering.”

Maduro has presided over a deepening economic crisis that has left millions in poverty as the country faces shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.

Some 2.3 million people have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations, while the International Monetary Fund says inflation will hit a staggering 10,000,000% this year.

Shops, schools and businesses remained closed yesterday and there was little traffic on the roads.

Guaidó called the protests two weeks ago in a bid to rally support behind his aim to remove Maduro, set up a transitional government and hold elections.

He accuses Maduro of being a usurper following his disputed re-election in a poll dismissed as a fraud by the European Union, the US and OAS.

© AFP 2019, with reporting from Órla Ryan and Associated Press 

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