- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The U.S. and nations across the hemisphere launched a stunning, coordinated rebuke Wednesday and declared that Venezuelan socialist President Nicolas Maduro is no longer his country’s legitimate leader, with President Trump vowing that “all options are on the table” — including military action — to deal with the long-running crisis in Caracas.

Mr. Trump, along with the Organization of American States (OAS) and countries from Canada to Brazil and Argentina, said he now recognizes Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president until new, fair elections can be organized. The unusually bold move comes just a week after Mr. Maduro, a protege of the late anti-U.S. populist Hugo Chavez, claimed a second six-year term in an election widely seen as illegitimate after he barred his chief political opponents from the race.

The developments could bring to a head a long-simmering clash over the future of oil-rich Venezuela, where political repression and economic mismanagement have sent living standards plummeting and sparked a massive refugee crisis that threatens to destabilize the country’s neighbors.

Venezuelan authorities reported Wednesday that at least seven people protesters had been killed in a violent day of demonstrations across the country Wednesday.

New Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was one of many regional leaders who said they now recognize the 35-year-old Mr. Guaido, the recently named head of the opposition-dominated National Assembly, as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

“Brazil will support the transition process politically and economically, so that Venezuela returns to democracy and social peace,” Mr. Bolsonaro said on Twitter.

In response, the embattled Mr. Maduro quickly broke off diplomatic ties with Washington and gave American diplomats 72 hours to leave the country. On a day that saw massive anti- and pro-government rallies on the streets of Caracas, he also delivered an angry speech from the presidential palace in which he blasted the “imperialist” U.S. government and urged his followers to not trust “the gringos.”

Venezuela still has a few friends among leftist regimes in the region, including Bolivia and Cuba. Mexico, under newly elected populist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also notably failed to endorse the campaign against Mr. Maduro Wednesday.

The coordinated move against Mr. Maduro carries deep geopolitical implications for the entire region and for the U.S., which is the largest importer of Venezuelan oil and now has inserted itself into the middle of a volatile political situation on the ground in Caracas. Fears swirled Wednesday that Mr. Maduro could respond by jailing his opponents or taking other drastic steps — a strategy that the White House warned would result in swift retaliation, including further economic sanctions, an oil embargo, and even possible military intervention.

“We’re not considering anything but all options on the table,” Mr. Trump told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “All options, always, all options are on the table.”

Hours earlier, the president issued a formal order recognizing Mr. Guaido’s claim to be the nation’s leader.

“We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people,” Mr. Trump said. “As Interim President Guaido noted yesterday: ‘Violence is the usurper’s weapon; we only have one clear action: to remain united and firm for a democratic and free Venezuela.”

Within minutes of the administration’s announcement, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru all announced they would follow suit and fully break with the regime led by Mr. Maduro. The move was also supported by the OAS, which traditionally has been skeptical of intervention in members’ domestic affairs.

The New York-based Human Rights Forum also endorsed the pressure campaign to oust Mr. Maduro, accusing the regime of long suppressing legitimate democratic dissent.

“It is an outrage that it took the international community so long to recognize ‘chavismo’ for what it is,” HRF President Thor Halvorssen said. “But I’m glad it has finally joined the fight.”

‘Interim president’

The youthful Mr. Guaido took the oath of office at a massive opposition rally on the streets of Caracas Wednesday.

“We know that this will have consequences,” he said before quickly departing for an unknown location. “To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution, we need the agreement of all Venezuelans.”

The OAS tweeted its “congratulations” Wednesday to Mr. Guaido.

“You have our recognition to move forward the country’s return to democracy,” said the organization in a statement.

Even in the face of growing protests, hyperinflation and food shortages, Mr. Maduro remained defiant Wednesday and showed no sign he’ll step down without a fight.

“Before the people and nations of the world, and as constitutional president, … I’ve decided to break diplomatic and political relations with the imperialist U.S. government,” he said in an impassioned speech. “Don’t trust the gringos. They don’t have friends or loyalties. They only have interests, guts and the ambition to take Venezuela’s oil, gas and gold.”

He then issued a stern warning to U.S. personnel.

“Here, nobody surrenders; here, we go to combat!” he said. “Out! You’ll be leaving Venezuela. Here, we have dignity, damn it!”

Meanwhile, at another pro-government counter-rally in Caracas, powerful Socialist Party leader Diosdado Cabello said right-wing forces do not represent the majority and that Mr. Maduro would not step down.

Anti-government protesters marched in the streets and waved the national flag as they demanded that Mr. Maduro step down. Members of the National Guard launched tear gas at protesters in the middle-class neighborhood of El Paraiso on Wednesday — just one example of the chaos that’s erupted in Venezuela over the past several days.

In the city of San Felix, residents set fire to a statue of Mr. Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

Even amid the violence and fears the country could erupt into all-out civil war, the White House said a diplomatic solution remains a possibility and urged Mr. Maduro to peacefully give up power. If he doesn’t, officials said, the U.S. will consider a new round of targeted economic sanctions or a full-blown oil embargo.

Officials also would not rule out military action against the Maduro regime, particularly if the Venezuelan leader chooses to begin arresting his political foes or taking other authoritarian steps.

“If they choose the route of violence and seek to usurp the constitutional order and democracy, let us be clear that we have a host of options. We will take every single one of those options seriously,” a senior administration official told reporters on a conference call. “The message to Maduro and his cronies would be if that is the route they choose, the message to them would be they have no immediate future, they have no immediate livelihood, and therefore one way or the other they have their days counted.”

But it would be a fraught step — analysts say the Maduro regime has played up the prospect of a U.S. invasion to rally its political base and tarnish its domestic critics.

Colombian President Ivan Duque has harshly criticized the Maduro regime, but bridled Wednesday at the suggestion of an armed intervention.

“We’re not talking about military intervention,” Mr. Duque told reporters while attending the global economic summit in Davos, Switzerland. “We’re talking about a diplomatic consensus and also the support of the Venezuelan people.”

The sanctions weapon

More U.S. economic pressure seems more likely, at least in the short term, and administration officials said they have significant leverage to wield over the Maduro regime.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of what actions the United States can take from an economic sanctions front,” the U.S. official said. “We are willing and we consider all of those options viable.”

Veteran Venezuelan diplomat Oscar Hernandez Bernalette predicted Wednesday’s declaration by the U.S. and its allies is likely to lead to full-blown diplomatic isolation of Venezuela, as long as Mr. Maduro clings to power.

“What would be the use of keeping Venezuelan missions in those countries — or of those countries in Venezuela? There will certainly be a request for a recall of ambassadors,” Mr. Hernandez told The Washington Times. “It’s all unheard of. It’s not a situation we see every day in the international community.”

How Mr. Maduro might react to Mr. Guaido’s swearing-in beyond further isolating his country, though, remained anybody’s guess, the career ambassador added, noting that the prevailing mood in Caracas was one of disorientation. Mr. Maduro has been looking farther afield for allies in recent years, cultivating ties and deals with governments such as Russia, Iran, China and Turkey.

In Washington, lawmakers on Capitol Hill had already been eyeing different options to assist opposition forces in Venezuela and try to deny the Maduro regime tools.

Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, and Donna Shalala, a Democrat, are extending temporary humanitarian protections to Venezuelans refugees in the U.S. who fear returning to their home country.

Known as Temporary Protected Status, it would give Venezuelans a reprieve from being deported if they overstay their visas or sneaked into the country, and it would grant them work permits so they can make a living while here. TPS is usually granted for 18 months but is often renewed.

Ms. Shalala said in an interview Wednesday before Mr. Trump’s announcement said she believes the TPS grant can become law and will certainly get a vote.

“It will pass the House,” she predicted.

She said she’s also looking at legislation that would ban U.S. sales of tear gas and batons to the Maduro regime’s security forces and enhance an existing ban on firearms sales by writing it into permanent law. And another bill she said Congress could take up would bolster nongovernmental organizations working in Venezuela.

• Frederic Puglie in Buenos Aires and Stephen Dinan in Washington contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.

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