CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013, as the leader of the U.S.-backed opposition claimed the legitimate mantle of leadership and President Trump and other world leaders promptly recognized him as Venezuela’s interim and rightful head of state.
A defiant Maduro responded by announcing a break in “diplomatic and political relations” with the United States, ordering American diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours.
The high-stakes move set up a looming diplomatic crisis. Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader now recognized by Washington as Venezuela’s interim president, called on diplomats to remain. In a statement late Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo indicated the Trump administration would not heed Maduro’s demand and called on the Venezuelan armed forces to refrain from endangering American personnel or face “appropriate actions.”
“The United States does not recognize the Maduro regime as the government of Venezuela,” the statement said. “Accordingly the United States does not consider former president Nicolas Maduro to have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the United States or to declare our diplomats persona non grata.”
Earlier in the day, Trump was asked if military force was being considered. “We’re not considering anything, but all options on the table,” he said. “All options, always, all options are on the table.”
The fast-moving events in Venezuela took most observers by surprise. Until recently, Maduro had been viewed as deeply entrenched, with his socialist inner circle — many of whom stand accused of drug trafficking and other criminal offenses — occupying every position of power.
But the widespread international condemnation, coupled with the fresh energy feeding his opponents, suggested a new and highly variable dynamic. Some argued that Maduro’s Venezuela could fall as rapidly as the Berlin Wall did, even as others suggested he would cling to power with the help of those who have aided him to date: the Russians, the Chinese and the Cubans.
In the balance is the fate of a nation with the world’s largest oil reserves, and where the exodus of starving Venezuelans has generated the largest migrant crisis in the region’s modern history. Throw in an unconventional U.S. administration that has seemed far more hawkish on Venezuela than North Korea or Syria, and the situation on the ground seemed increasingly unpredictable.
As the international campaign against him grew, Maduro, the anointed successor of the late socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez, was confronting a new opponent in the form of Guaidó. Before a cheering throng on Wednesday, the 35-year-old industrial engineer and recently named head of the country’s National Assembly invoked the constitution to declare himself the nation’s “president in charge.”
“We will stay on the street until Venezuela is liberated!” Guaidó told the crowd in Caracas.
The developments came as anti-Maduro protests drew hundreds of thousands of people into Venezuelan streets. After months of mounting U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, the move by the Trump administration to shift recognition to Guaidó amounted to the strongest statement so far against what it called a “disastrous dictatorship.”
In a statement, Trump called on other governments to follow the United States’ move.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump wrote. “I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy.”
Shortly afterward, 11 countries in the Lima Group, which was created in 2017 to deal with the Venezuela issue, signed a resolution backing Guaidó as president, and the European Council and Parliament both backed the National Assembly but fell short of recognizing Guaidó as interim president. Mexico, Russia and Cuba, however, reiterated their recognition of Maduro.
“This changes the game in Venezuela,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and the Americas Society. “It’s an inflection point that turns the Maduro regime into an international pariah and gives an immediate boost to Guaidó’s claims under the Venezuelan constitution. But it is not without risk, either by Guaidó or the Trump administration. Maduro will never accede to this course or willingly give up power, and Guaidó’s actions will not give Maduro the option to ignore him.”
Maduro’s claim to power is based on an election last year that was internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab. Mismanagement, corruption and failed socialist policies have broken the oil-producing nation, spreading hyperinflation, hunger and disease. The government has used repression, torture and exile to keep dissidents in line.
Though stripped of its power by Maduro, the National Assembly, headed by Guaidó, is widely acknowledged internationally as Venezuela’s last democratic institution.
Guaidó still faces a formidable security apparatus at Maduro’s disposal, and experts warned that Maduro could yet survive this challenge, as he has others in the past.
“These democratic tools tend not to work as much in Venezuela because of government repression,” said Russ Dallen, a Florida-based managing partner at the brokerage Caracas Capital Markets. “I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but if marches were enough to depose him, they would have done it many times before.”
It remained unclear if Maduro’s move to break diplomatic ties would also mean a halt in sales of Venezuelan oil to its largest cash-paying customer: the United States.
Dallen said that the Trump administration in recent days has advised U.S.-based refineries of possible oil sanctions against Caracas, a move that would not damage the U.S. oil sector nearly as much as it would have years ago. Venezuela’s oil production has collapsed under Maduro; it currently sells about 500,000 barrels per day to the United States, or about half the volume of a decade ago.
Amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Caracas, the U.S.-backed opposition on Wednesday filled the streets with the largest anti-government protests since 2017, when hundreds of thousands sought Maduro’s departure. That movement was ultimately crushed after official repression led to the deaths of more than 100 people.
As people started to gather on a rainy Caracas morning, protests in some areas were being dispersed by security forces using tear gas. Nevertheless, crowds surged into the hundreds of thousands. In eastern Caracas, people yelled: “Who are we? Venezuela. What do we want? Freedom.”
Gabriela Aristimuño, a 40-year-old lawyer, escaped tear gas in western Caracas and quickly joined the crowd in the east. “Fear? No, nothing. Freedom and my children are all I care about,” she said. “I want everything I had before, before all this tragedy.”
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a nonprofit group, said at least nine people died Wednesday in protests. The legal group Foro Penal said 24 people were detained.
The official state television channel on Wednesday showed images of pro-Maduro crowds and urged viewers to join a counterprotest. “The streets belong to Chavismo,” the narrator said, referring to the government’s left-wing ideology and encouraging people to use that as a hashtag on Twitter.
At the pro-government demonstration, people wore red caps and listened to Maduro and Chávez campaign songs. “Yesterday there was an insolent call by the United States. Today we have to go out to defend the revolution,” said Guillermo Blanco, an employee of Venezuela’s state oil company. “We don’t take orders from anyone.”
Venezuela’s crisis deepens by the day. But Maduro is celebrating the start of six more years in office.
The military’s loyalty remains key to Maduro’s survival. A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post this month that Maduro’s defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, has privately told Maduro that he should step aside.
On Wednesday, Padrino Lopez tweeted his rejection of Guaidó’s claim to the presidency, but he noticeably did not reiterate his backing of Maduro. He called a news conference for 10 a.m. Thursday to make “an official announcement.”
“Desperation and intolerance are attacking this Nation’s peace,” he said in the tweet. “The soldiers of this nation won’t accept a president imposed in the shadows or self-proclaimed unlawfully. The National Armed Forces defend the constitution and guarantees national sovereignty.”
Thousands of police and military rank and file have deserted their posts, but outward signs of division within the military have been limited.
Nevertheless, there are growing indications of cracks. On Monday, dozens of Venezuelan national guard personnel stole arms from two Caracas units, kidnapped four officials and recorded themselves in a northern slum urging people to join them in rebellion. The videos circulated on social media, but shortly afterward, the government announced the arrests of 27 dissenting officials.
That same day, hundreds of residents took to the streets as protests broke out in western slums across Caracas in the afternoon, continuing well past midnight.
The demonstrations led some observers to suggest that the poorest sectors of the capital could join the opposition’s traditional upper-class base in Wednesday’s protests — something that has rarely happened in the past.
“I’m tired,” said Gladys Ibarra, a 40-year-old informal merchant who was protesting in a northwestern Caracas slum. “I’m tired of not having water, energy. Tired of waking up at dawn trying to find gas to cook.”
Faiola reported from Rio de Janeiro and Morello from Washington. Rachelle Krygier in Miami contributed to this report.