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Venezuela Opposition Declares Maduro Illegitimate, and Urges Defections

CARACAS — Leaders of Venezuela’s opposition on Tuesday set in motion a plan to try to oust President Nicolas Maduro and create a caretaker government until new elections can be held.

The National Assembly, the opposition-controlled legislative body, declared Mr. Maduro illegitimate, hoping to trigger a Constitutional mechanism that would allow the head of the National Assembly to take over the leadership.

It was not immediately clear what effect the move would have or how Mr. Maduro’s government would react. The National Assembly has been largely powerless since Venezuela’s Supreme Court, which is packed by Maduro loyalists, attempted to dissolve it in March 2017.

But pressure has been growing on Mr. Maduro both domestically and abroad since the president was sworn in for his second term last week. Not long after the ceremony, an opposition leader who is head of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, said he would be ready to take over as president and call fair elections if Venezuelans and the armed forces backed him.

He quickly received support from Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, who began calling Mr. Guaidó the country’s “interim president,” and from Vice President Mike Pence. Mr. Pence said in a message posted on Twitter Sunday that the United States “strongly supports the courageous decision by Juan Guaidó” to “declare the country’s presidency vacant.”

Opposition leaders and longtime Venezuela watchers say Mr. Guaidó’s challenge to the president comes at a time of unprecedented pressure on Mr. Maduro.

“It’s almost a now-or-never moment,” said Fernando Cutz, a former senior White House official who helped shape Venezuela policy under the Trump and Obama administrations.

This most recent move against the country’s authoritarian president comes amid a collapsing economy and a growing humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Guaidó was briefly taken into custody by members of Venezuelan intelligence service on Sunday, then released. In an interview, he said he had been able to convince the officers that the opposition’s plan to remove Mr. Maduro was constitutional and would help the country.

While that cannot be independently confirmed, the fact that Mr. Guaidó was released may indicate cracks in the security apparatus that has kept Mr. Maduro in power until now.

Sitting in a plain office at the headquarters of his political party, Popular Will, Mr. Guaidó said on Monday that opposition leaders believed they stood a good chance of seizing power from Mr. Maduro and convening a new election.

The key would be to persuade those who remain loyal to the government that they can switch allegiances and help rebuild a country devastated by an economic meltdown, acute food and medicine shortages and rampant violence.

“We are certain that we are taking the proper steps not to merely declare, but to execute” a peaceful transition of power, Mr. Guaidó said. “I think it is underway.”

He is cleareyed about the risks he is taking, he said. Mr. Guaidó still bears scars from being shot with rubber bullets during street protests last year.

“Anyone who gets involved in opposition efforts today can fare very poorly,” he said.

Mr. Guaidó has called on Venezuelans to take to the streets on Jan. 23 for mass demonstrations backing his bid to remove Mr. Maduro.

In recent months, opposition leaders have struggled to organize large, sustained demonstrations amid skepticism by Venezuelans that the opposition can bring about change. Many also fear the increasingly brutal reprisals of the security forces.

As inflation has soared and food and medicine have become acutely scarce, Venezuelans have been fleeing their nation in droves. As of last November, more than three million people had left, according to the United Nations.

Mr. Cutz, the former White House official, said he feared that the opposition could emerge severely weakened if it failed to get people to protest in large numbers.

“If Maduro emerges victorious, then I feel like we are left with a relatively high likelihood of Venezuela ending up like Cuba,” he said. “This will become the status quo, and everyone will kind of accept it.”




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