Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president in a defiant speech on Wednesday before masses of anti-government demonstrators who took to the streets to demand President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation.
The bold challenge to Mr Maduro’s rule immediately drew recognition from the Trump administration, which said it would use the “full weight” of US economic and diplomatic power to push for the restoration of Venezuela’s democracy.
Raising his right hand in union with tens of thousands of supporters, Mr Guaido, the fresh-faced head of the opposition-controlled congress, took a symbolic oath to assume executive powers he says are his right under Venezuela's constitution and take over the presidency until new elections can be called.
“Today, January 23, 2019, I swear to formally assume the powers of the national executive as president in charge of Venezuela,” he told the cheering crowd standing before a lectern emblazoned with Venezuela’s national coat of arms.
Mr Guaido, 35, said he was taking the politically risky step only two weeks after Mr Maduro took his own oath to a second six-year term confident that it was the only way to rescue Venezuela from “dictatorship” and restore constitutional order
"We know that this will have consequences," he shouted, moments before leading the crowd in singing Venezuela's national anthem. "To be able to achieve this task and to re-establish the constitution we need the agreement of all Venezuelans."
The declaration came as tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators poured into the streets on Wednesday, accusing embattled Maduro of usurping power and demanding he step down as the country reels from a crushing economic crisis forcing millions to flee or go hungry.
Large crowds of protesters gathered in Caracas waving flags and chanting “Get out Maduro!” in what was the largest demonstration since a wave of unrest that left more than 120 dead in 2017.
Pro-government demonstrators dressed in red in support of Maduro were also marching in the capital, at times crossing paths with opposition protesters and shouting “sell-outs” and “traitors”. National guardsmen launched teargas at anti-government protesters in the middle-class neighbourhood of El Paraiso, but for the most part the marches continued without conflict.
“Join us!” the protesters cried out to a line of officers wearing helmets and carrying shields. “You are also living this crisis!”
The protest is considered a crucial test for the reinvigorated opposition as it seeks to send a forceful message that Mr Maduro no longer has the people’s backing and appeals to the military and the poor to shift loyalties that until recently looked solidly behind the president. The protests were called to coincide with a historic date for Venezuelans — the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
“The democratic forces are here advancing,” opposition leader Maria Corina Machado said as she marched. “Not so that Maduro changes but so that he leaves.”
Mr Trump called on other Western-hemisphere governments to join him in recognising Mr Guaido.
“The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law,” Mr Trump said.
The demonstration comes after a whirlwind week that saw an uprising by a tiny military unit put down by government forces, fires set during protests in poor neighbourhoods and the brief detention by security forces of Mr Guaido.