EU says voice of Venezuelan people ‘cannot be ignored’, calls for free and fair election

File photo. Juan Guaido, President of the Venezuelan Parliament, poses with a copy of Venezuela's consitution as he announces that he assumes executive powers, in Caracas, Venezuela, 23 January 2019. [Miguel Gutierrez/EPA/EFE]

The European Union said Wednesday (23 January) that the voice of the Venezuelan people “cannot be ignored” and called for “free and credible elections” after the South American country’s parliament leader declared himself interim president on Wednesday (23 January).

The avalanche of support for Juan Guaido dramatically raised the stakes in Venezuela, an oil-rich nation that has become deeply impoverished under Nicolas Maduro.

Maduro has clung to power through the support of the Venezuelan military, and he is an ally of Russia, which last month sent two nuclear-capable bombers to the country to participate in a military drill.

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Guaido called out Maduro as he took a revised oath of office before a crowd of thousands in Caracas, saying, “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.”

The self-declared interim president, an industrial engineer by training, has shown no fear in challenging the socialist leader’s election to a second term, in a May vote that was boycotted by the opposition and rejected by the United States, European Union and a dozen Latin American countries.

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Eight people have so far died across Venezuela in clashes with police this week and authorities have arrested 59 people since Monday, according to local officials and rights groups.

Guaido, who became the youngest person ever to preside over the legislature on 5 January, has never been a great public speaker. But he is known as a talented coalition-builder – something Venezuela’s divided and disorganised opposition badly needs.

“The people of Venezuela have massively called for democracy and the possibility to freely determine their own destiny,” the EU’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement on behalf of the 28-member bloc.

“These voices cannot be ignored. The EU strongly calls for the start of an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections, in conformity with the Constitutional order,” she added.

The United States, Canada and major South American nations quickly backed Guaido after he proclaimed himself interim leader, leaving Maduro increasingly isolated.

“The civil rights, freedom and safety of all members of the National Assembly, including its president, Juan Guaido, need to be observed and fully respected,” Mogherini said.

“Violence and the excessive use of force by security forces are completely unacceptable, and will for sure not resolve the crisis.”

The EU and its member states “remain ready to support the restoration of democracy and rule of law in Venezuela through a credible peaceful political process in line with the Venezuelan constitution”, the statement said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk earlier tweeted that he “hopes that all of Europe will unite in support of democratic forces in Venezuela”.

US, regional powers recognise Guaido

The United States and major South American nations also recognised Guaido as interim leader on Wednesday.

Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Peru and Argentina all gave their backing to Guaido’s self-proclamation as acting president, which he made in front of crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in the capital Caracas.

Cuba, however, sprang to the defence of its socialist ally, expressing “solidarity” with Maduro while Mexico extended lukewarm support to him.

Just minutes after Guaido’s declaration, US President Donald Trump recognised him as interim leader, and declared that his National Assembly is “the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people”.

“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Trump said.

The US said it stood ready to use “all options” if Maduro tries to quash the opposition, in what was an implied threat of military force.

Maduro responded by saying he was cutting off diplomatic ties with Washington, as his riot police clashed with opposition supporters in Caracas.

“Get Out! Leave Venezuela. Here we have dignity, damn it,” Maduro said, giving US diplomats 72 hours to depart.

But Guaido tweeted in response that, under him, Venezuela wants countries “to maintain their diplomatic presence in our country”.

And the US State Department said “former president Maduro” did not have the authority to sever relations.

Broadening support

Tweeting from the Swiss ski resort of Davos, where he and other leaders were attending the World Economic Forum, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said: “Brazil recognises Mr. Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.”

He added that “Brazil will support politically and economically the process of transition so that democracy and social peace return to Venezuela”.

Bolsonaro, a far-right former paratrooper who has set about forging close ties with the Trump administration since taking power at the beginning of January, has repeatedly vowed to challenge Maduro in any way he can.

He initially said he was open to discussing Brazil hosting a US military base, before changing his mind when the idea sparked objections from his military brass.

Colombian President Ivan Duque, another US ally also at Davos, told reporters his country was behind Guaido and will “accompany this process of transition to democracy so that the Venezuelan people free themselves of their dictatorship”.

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed her country’s “full support” for Guaido, adding: “It’s an important day for Venezuela and I’m grateful for the solidarity of the Lima Group in speaking out on this.”

Eleven members of the 14-nation Lima Group — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay and Peru — later issued a joint statement endorsing Guaido as interim president.

The three holdouts included Mexico, which has maintained a principle of non-intervention under leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, as well as Guyana and Saint Lucia.

The United States is not a member but supports the group, which has taken an increasingly strident stance against Maduro, whom it sees as anti-democratic.

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