Venezuela Opposition Declares Maduro Illegitimate, and Urges Defections – The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — Leaders of Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday set in motion a plan to try to oust President Nicolás Maduro and create a caretaker government until new elections can be held.

The National Assembly, the opposition-controlled legislative body, declared Mr. Maduro illegitimate, hoping to trigger a constitutional mechanism that would allow the head of the assembly to take over the leadership.

It was not immediately clear what effect the move would have or how Mr. Maduro’s government would react.

Rafael Chavero, professor of constitutional law at the Central University of Venezuela, said the next steps were not clear. “You have to think outside the box,” he said. “There is no magic formula to get out of dictatorships.”

The National Assembly has been largely powerless since Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which is packed by Maduro loyalists, attempted to dissolve it in March 2017.

But pressure has been mounting on Mr. Maduro, both domestically and abroad, since he was sworn in for his second term last week. Not long after the ceremony, an opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, said he would be ready to take over as president and hold fair elections if Venezuelans and the armed forces backed him.

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence spoke with Mr. Guaidó on the phone to recognize “his courageous leadership” and to “express the United States’ resolute support for the National Assembly of Venezuela as the only legitimate democratic body in the country,” according to a statement from the office of the vice president.

Earlier, on Twitter, Mr. Pence said the United States “strongly supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaidó” to “declare the country’s presidency vacant.”

Mr. Guaidó has also received support from Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who called him the country’s “interim president.”

The expressions of support have emboldened those opposition leaders who remain in Venezuela — and who have not been imprisoned — to pursue the high-stakes plan to try to oust Mr. Maduro. They have extended an olive branch to the security forces in the hope that enough middle- and low-level members break ranks, and that Mr. Maduro loses a critical pillar of support.

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President Nicolas Maduro at his swearing-in ceremony last week.CreditCarlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

Until recent days, the National Assembly had been regarded as ineffectual, and led by politicians who had lost popular support as their efforts to challenge Mr. Maduro faltered repeatedly. It was also stymied by divisions in its ranks and a ruthless security apparatus that has jailed critics and opponents, tortured hundreds of suspected dissidents and foiled rebellions within the security forces.

But longtime Venezuela watchers say this challenge to the president comes at a time of unprecedented opposition to Mr. Maduro.

“It’s almost a now-or-never moment,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior White House official who helped shape Venezuela policy under the Trump and Obama administrations.

The country’s authoritarian president was inaugurated for a second term amid a collapsing economy and a growing humanitarian crisis. As inflation has soared and food and medicine have become acutely scarce, Venezuelans have been fleeing their nation in droves. As of last November, more than three million people had left, according to the United Nations.

Ahead of Mr. Maduro’s inauguration, a group of countries that includes Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina issued a statement calling Mr. Maduro’s second term “illegitimate” and his government “dictatorial and oppressive.”

Mr. Guaidó, 35, has stopped short of calling himself the nation’s rightful leader. But the day after Mr. Maduro’s second swearing-in, Mr. Guaidó invoked an article of Venezuela’s Constitution that transfers power to the president of the National Assembly in the event that the presidency becomes vacant.

Mr. Guaidó was not a household name at home or abroad before he was sworn in as the new leader of the National Assembly on Jan. 5. But on Sunday, his profile rose dramatically after masked agents from Venezuela’s intelligence service took him into custody.

The men grabbed him at gunpoint and hustled him into a car — but seemed unsure what to do once they had him, Mr. Guaidó told The Times in an interview.

They questioned him on his plans to assume the country’s leadership and call a new election, and then let him go, Mr. Guaidó said on Monday from the plain office that serves as the headquarters of his political party, Popular Will.

“They asked me if we were serious people, and I said that of course, that we could protect the Venezuelan people and that Maduro could not do it,” Mr. Guaidó said.

He said he had assured the men “there would be amnesty for all those who support us.” Some of them removed their masks, saying, “Look at our faces and don’t forget us,” he said.

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Opposition supporters in Vargas, Venezuela, on Sunday. “It’s almost a now-or-never moment,” one political observer said.CreditYuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Then they let him go.

While that exchange cannot be independently confirmed, the fact that Mr. Guaidó was released may indicate cracks in the security apparatus that has kept Mr. Maduro in power until now. It helped bolster opposition leaders’ belief that they stand a good chance of seizing power from Mr. Maduro and holding a new election.

“We are certain that we are taking the proper steps not to merely declare, but to execute” a peaceful transition of power, Mr. Guaidó said. “I think it is underway.”

The key would be to persuade those who remain loyal to the government that they can switch allegiances and help rebuild a country devastated by an economic meltdown, acute food and medicine shortages and rampant violence, he said.

Venezuela’s communications minister, Jorge Rodríguez, called the detention of Mr. Guaidó a rogue operation that had not been ordered by the government. He said the men who carried it out had been “dismissed” and would be punished.

In the wake of Mr. Guaidó’s detention, Mr. Maduro dismissed his political rivals, saying they have long sought to seize power through “adventure, improvisation, coups.” Their plan, he said, was destined to fail.

“Here the people of Venezuela will continue to rule with Nicolás Maduro at the head of the presidency of the country,” Mr. Maduro said in remarks to the Constituent Assembly.

Mr. Guaidó is an industrial engineer who got his start in politics through activism in student movements. He was a protégé of Leopoldo López, a prominent opposition leader who was jailed during street protests in 2014 and is currently under house arrest in Caracas.

Mr. Guaidó is cleareyed about the risks he is taking, he said. He still bears scars from being shot with rubber bullets during street protests last year.

“Anyone who gets involved in opposition efforts today can fare very poorly,” he said.

Mr. Guaidó has called on Venezuelans to take to the streets on Jan. 23 for mass demonstrations backing his bid to remove Mr. Maduro.

In recent months, opposition leaders have struggled to organize large, sustained demonstrations amid skepticism by Venezuelans that the opposition can bring about change. Many also fear the increasingly brutal reprisals of the security forces.

Mr. Cutz, the former White House official, said he feared that the opposition could emerge severely weakened if it failed to get people to protest in large numbers.

“If Maduro emerges victorious, then I feel like we are left with a relatively high likelihood of Venezuela ending up like Cuba,” he said. “This will become the status quo, and everyone will kind of accept it.”

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