CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The State Department’s top official on Venezuela said Tuesday that the Trump administration will continue recognizing lawmaker Juan Guaidó as the South American nation’s interim president even if President Nicolás Maduro’s government ousts the opposition from control of congress — its last major stronghold.
“He will not change the legal status for many countries around the world — and especially for us,” Trump’s special representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in a hearing Tuesday.
Maduro’s government has scheduled a Dec. 6 election for a new National Assembly, which is now controlled by the opposition. As the body’s leader, Guaidó last year claimed the nation’s presidency, arguing that Maduro’s reelection had been fraudulent, in part because top opposition figures had been banned.
Guaidó and more than two dozen opposition parties recently announced they will boycott the congressional elections. They said Maduro’s government had already manipulated the process, in part by imposing new leaders on the key parties allowed to take part, making the upcoming elections a “fraud.” The current congress’ term will end in the first week of January.
“In our view the constitutional president of Venezuela today and after Jan. 5, 2021, is Juan Guaidó,” Abrams said.
The U.S. is among more than 50 nations that have recognized Guaidó as interim leader, saying the nation’s presidency is vacant because Maduro’s rule is illegitimate.
However, 18 months later, Maduro remains in control of the nation with backing from key international allies like Russia, China, Cuba and Iran. He also is supported by Venezuela’s military.
U.S. lawmakers gave scathing criticism of how the U.S. handled efforts to help Venezuela cast off Maduro’s authoritative government and return the once-wealthy oil nation to democratic rule.
“Our Venezuela policy over the last year and a half has been an unmitigated disaster,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. “If we aren’t honest about that, then we can’t self-correct.”
Murphy said the rushed U.S. policy has allowed Maduro to label Guaidó an “American patsy” while hardening Russian and Cuban backing of Maduro.
An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled shortages of gasoline, food and a broken healthcare system that is showing signs of buckling as the new coronavirus surges.
Speaking with The Associated Press in Caracas in a virtual interview, Guaidó said criticism from politicians in Washington is natural, but he is confident that Venezuela has bipartisan support in United States and the international community to overthrow Maduro’s “tyrannical regimen.”
The opposition leader said he hasn’t talked to the campaign of Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, and the Venezuelan opposition leader offered no new strategy for toppling Maduro, relying on international pressure and sanctions to further isolate Maduro.
Guaidó said boycotting the congressional elections is justified because the conditions set by Maduro’s government eroded the electoral process beyond the 2018 presidential election — which the opposition also rejected.
But he added that this doesn’t mean their fight has ended.
“Look, we’re fighting here for democracy,” Guaidó said, calling Maduro an “authoritarian dictator” responsible for “genocide” and “trafficking” in gold and drugs at Venezuela’s expense. “The fight we’re waging in Venezuela rises from the legitimacy of our constitution.”