MADRID/PARIS: Eight European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening the global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.
Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany’s coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day deadline set last weekend for Maduro to call a new election. Austria and Lithuania also lined up behind the self-declared interim president Guaido.
The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them, saying Europe’s ruling elite are sycophantically following President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Guaido, who leads the opposition-controlled National Assembly, declared himself temporary leader last month in a move that has split international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.
Trump immediately recognized him but European Union nations were nervous over the global precedent of a self-declaration.
Russia and China, who have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of a geopolitical tussle with the United States playing out across various global flashpoints.
“Attempts to legitimize usurped power” constituted “interference in Venezuela's internal affairs,” President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
“I recognize the president of Venezuela’s assembly, Mr. Juan Guaido, as president in charge of Venezuela,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said in a televised statement, urging a free and fair election as soon as possible.
“Venezuelans have the right to express themselves freely and democratically. France recognizes @jguaido as ‘interim president’ to implement an electoral process,” President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said via social media. “UK alongside European allies now recognizes @jguaido as interim constitutional president until credible elections can be held.”
He added: “The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end.”
Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign leader, replaced former leader Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.
He blames a US-led “economic war” and also accuses Washington of seeking a coup against him in order to get its hands-on Venezuela’s oil wealth. It has the largest reserves in the world, but production has plunged under Maduro.
Critics say incompetent policies and corruption under both Maduro and Chavez have impoverished a once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.
Responding to the EU nations’ moves on Monday, Russia said it was foreign meddling and Venezuelans should be allowed to resolve their own domestic problems. The Maduro government is paying back both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.
In addition to the European pressure, a major bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain their pressure on Maduro.
Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say it was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred from standing, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.
Non-EU member Switzerland expressed concern and urged a “constitutional solution” and protection for Guaido, but did not specifically recognize him as president.