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Venezuela now has two presidents; how long will the uncertainty last?

Miami Herald logo Miami Herald 1/23/2019 By Jim Wyss and Carlos Camacho, Miami Herald

Video by Bloomberg

CARACAS, Venezuela - Raising his right hand before a cheering crowd of supporters, Juan Guaido declared himself interim president of Venezuela, called for new elections and put himself on a collision course with Nicolas Maduro, the country's beleaguered but still powerful leader.

Guaido, the 35-year-old president of the National Assembly, said it was his constitutional duty to take the reins of the troubled country even as he acknowledged his act of defiance "would have consequences."

Asked if he feared going to jail, as countless other political leaders have, Guaido said, "I'm not worried about that, I'm worried about our people who are suffering."

Within minutes of declaring himself president, the White House recognized Guaido's authority.

"The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law," President Donald Trump said in a statement. "I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy."

A senior administration official, who spoke on background said that if "Maduro and his cronies choose to respond with violence" or harm members of Venezuela's congress, "all actions are on the table." And he said that the economic and diplomatic measures taken thus far "barely scratched the surface" in terms of what's possible.

Guaido's bold move shoves Venezuela - already reeling from economic, social and political turmoil - into uncharted territory. As of Wednesday, Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Peru had joined Washington in recognizing Guaido. But Maduro still has powerful allies, including Russia, China and Turkey.

Guaido's actions seem designed to force a fierce reaction from Maduro, said Phil Gunson a senior analyst with the Crisis Group based in Caracas.

"The longer Maduro is unable to deliver a swift response to this move, the more doubts will grow within the military that (Maduro's) not really the president," Gunson said.

Slideshow by photo services

But he dismissed the idea that Guaido could effectively function as a parallel president. Unless the young leader sees support from the military or other sectors that hold the levers of power he's likely to end up in exile or in jail, Gunson said.

It's unclear what Maduro's next move is, but the country's Supreme Court last week declared that the entire leadership of congress, including Guaido, was illegal. And Maduro hasn't hesitated to arrest or sideline politicians who defied him in the past.

Maduro claims he won a May 10 election that gives him the right to rule the country until 2025. The National Assembly argued that the race was plagued by fraud, that the vote was illegitimate and that the presidency has been "vacant" since Maduro began his second term on Jan. 10.

Who wins that argument will likely have more to do with the power on the street than constitutional law.

Wednesday's march was a good sign for the opposition, as hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps more, crowded the streets in the capital city of Caracas and other locations. But Guaido said they needed to keep up the pressure to create lasting change.

"Those who have usurped the symbols of power believe, their calculations are, that the pressure will ease on the streets and that we'll grow tired," said Guaido, suggesting change might not happen immediately. "We will keep insisting until we have democracy and freedom."

Large anti-government protests in 2014 and 2017 began with much enthusiasm but fizzled out after months and at the cost of hundreds of dead.

By Wednesday afternoon, plumes of smoke were rising over Caracas and local TV showed pictures of overturned vehicles set on fire, likely harbingers of another restless, violent, night - the third this week.

Earlier in the day, as crowds gathered in Sucre, in eastern Caracas, city council member Juan Carlos Vidal said violent clashes overnight with police had some protesters wary of taking the street, but they had still showed up in force.

"This is a river of people," he said, as the throngs blew horns and waved tri-color flags. "We're hoping to see the people come out like never before."

He also called on one-time supporters of the ruling party, or Chavistas, to join the protest.

"At this moment, on this historic occasion, we extend our hand to Chavistas who want to join us," he said. "We welcome them with an embrace and all are welcome, because Venezuela needs them to rebuild."

But in a country where your political allegiance can determine whether or not you have access to subsidized food and other government benefits, some are still wary.

Miguel Perez took the subway from his home in Catia, a government stronghold, to protest in eastern Caracas, away from prying eyes. Asked what he was protesting, he said "everything," including the economic chaos that has forced more than 3.3 million Venezuelans to flee in recent years.

"I am protesting because I want to see my family reunited," he said, fighting back tears. "And so that no other family has to go through what I've gone through."

While the protesters in Sucre were allowed to gather peacefully, there were reports that other rallying points had been dispersed with tear gas early Wednesday.

The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, which tracks protests, said that there were at least 61 neighborhoods racked by demonstrations in Caracas overnight Tuesday and that at least one person had died. Notably, the protests hit areas once considered government bulwarks in western Caracas, like the 23 de Enero and Petare neighborhoods. And that's fueling expectations that Wednesday's marches could have broad support from Venezuela's working class barrios.

Local media reported as many as eight deaths as of Wednesday afternoon. Protesters also reportedly destroyed a statue of Hugo Chavez - the socialist firebrand and Maduro's mentor - in the town of San Felix in eastern Venezuela.

Maduro held his own rally Wednesday afternoon in downtown Caracas. State-run television showed crowds of red-clad supporters waving flags and chanting slogans.

The lingering question: How long will the uncertainty last?

"This movement is unstoppable," Guaido said. "Because hope has returned here today ... with the certainty that change is coming and the faith that it will happen soon."

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