Guaido boosted by Europe backing in Venezuela standoff

International clamor for snap elections in Venezuela intensified Monday as European powers recognized opposition chief Juan Guaido as interim leader, after Nicolas Maduro rejected an ultimatum to call new polls. Britain, France and Spain were among 16 EU nations to side with Guaido, following in the footsteps of key regional powers and the United States, which has refused to rule out a military intervention in the crisis-wracked
country. But key Maduro ally Russia slammed European “interference” in the oil-rich
but impoverished Latin American country, saying it was an attempt to
“legitimize usurped power.” Guaido thanked each EU country in turn on Twitter “for supporting all Venezuelans in this struggle we undertake to rescue our nation’s democracy,
freedom and justice.” Claiming his legitimacy from the constitution, the 35-year-old National Assembly leader stunned the world when he proclaimed himself interim
president on January 23, setting up a tense standoff with Maduro — with both
men heading rival massive street rallies in Caracas on Saturday. Guaido is trying to force from power the socialist leader — labeled a dictator by the West and his Latin American neighbors after presiding over Venezuela’s economic collapse — aiming to set up a transitional government and hold new presidential elections. Despite Guaido’s pleas for their support, the armed forces — the country’s key power — have remained loyal to Maduro, but the opposition leader has expressed confidence he will win over senior officers after a top air force general publicly sided with him on Saturday.

Guaido lost no time in building on broadened international support, with his fledgling alternative administration announcing February 14 talks in Washington on responding to “the largest hemispheric humanitarian crisis in modern history.” The opposition leader says up to 300,000 people are “at risk of death” from malnutrition and illness after years of shortages of basic food and medicines.

The US and other countries have already pledged humanitarian aid for
Guaido’s administration, though it remains to be seen where and how it can
enter the country without the military’s support.

The young lawmaker accused the military of planning to divert aid being
stockpiled in Colombia, Brazil and an unidentified Caribbean island, in order
to distribute it through the socialist government’s subsidized food program
for supporters.

Guaido appealed to the military’s “conscience” to let the aid reach those
most in need.

– ‘Confrontation’ –

It remained unclear how Guaido could fund and operate an interim presidency
with Maduro refusing to budge.

He accused Maduro of trying to illicitly transfer up to $1.2 billion from
public coffers to a bank in Uruguay.

Guaido also said Maduro was seeking to move the money from the Venezuelan
Economic and Social Development Bank to its branch in Uruguay and urged the
Montevideo government “not to lend itself to stealing.”

France, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, Estonia, Latvia,
Lithuania, Finland, the Czech Republic and Luxembourg also recognized Guaido.
Ten EU countries have yet to announce their position.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the European states’ recognition
of Guaido, and urged others to follow suit.

The cascade of support from EU countries came after the passing of a Sunday
deadline for Maduro to call presidential elections.

Maduro flatly rejected the demands in an interview with Spanish television,
insisting he would not “cave in to pressure.”

Venezuela’s foreign ministry announced a “review” of its diplomatic
relations with EU states over their recognition of Guaido, saying they were
effectively supporting plans for a coup.

Maduro began a new term in office last month after 2018 elections branded
illegitimate by the opposition.

In the interview, he supported plans for a meeting of Latin American and EU
states in a “Contact Group” in Montevideo on Thursday, saying it would lead
to “dialogue.”

At the beginning of a week of intense diplomacy, Canada’s Prime Minister
Justin Trudeau meanwhile pledged $40 million in humanitarian aid for
Venezuelans as he hosted a meeting of the Lima Group of Latin American
countries and Canada.

Eleven of the group’s 14 members issued a joint statement calling for a
peaceful change of government in Venezuela, without military intervention.

They urged Venezuela’s military to support Guaido and “not to impede” the
delivery of aid.

But Maduro dismissed the group’s calls for change, saying they made him
feel “like vomiting and laughing at the same time.”

“They’re each crazier than the other,” Maduro said of the demands.

– Humanitarian crisis –

Maduro has rejected all offers of aid, dismissing it as the thin edge of a
wedge of US military involvement.

Analysts Eurasia Group said the subject of humanitarian aid “represents a
lose-lose gambit for Maduro” as letting it in would boost Guaido while
blocking it “would likely lead to more blowback in the streets.”

Under Maduro’s stewardship, oil-dependent Venezuela has plunged into an
economic crisis, suffering from hyperinflation and shortages of food and
medicine.

On Monday, oil prices rose to their highest level yet this year on European
markets on the back of the crisis in Venezuela.

Eurasia warned that US oil sanctions are “set to have a broad impact” with
the government facing “the prospect of running out of gasoline, which could
serve as another social catalyst.”

Forty people were killed in clashes with security forces in a week of
protests coinciding with Guaido’s self-proclamation as acting leader,
according to the United Nations.

Local NGO Foro Penal said almost 1,000 people were detained between January
21 and 31.

It said Venezuela now has its “largest number of political prisoners” in 18
years, including 82 members of the armed forces.