Mike Pompeo calls for world to back Nicolas Maduro challenger in Venezuela

Stand with the forces of freedom, US secretary of state says in speech to Security Council

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the United Nations during a Security Council meeting about the situation in Venezuela in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday called for all countries to support Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaido for a democratic transition of power in the country.

Mr Pompeo was addressing a UN Security Council meeting called at his request to discuss the situation in Venezuela. Mr Guaido, the head of the National Assembly, on Wednesday invoked the constitution to declare himself interim leader in place of President Nicolas Maduro until fresh elections are held.

"Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you're in league with Maduro and his mayhem," Mr Pompeo told the council.

"We call on all members of the Security Council to support Venezuela's democratic transition and interim President Guaido’s role in it."

The Trump administration cut all relations with the Maduro government on Wednesday and declared its backing and recognition of Mr Guaido as the interim president. Canada, the UK, France, Argentina, Brazil, and the European Union also announced their backing of protesters who continued to gather in Caracas.

Mr Pompeo's address to the Security Council came a day after he announced the appointment of neoconservative figure Elliott Abrams to take charge of the Venezuela crisis.

Mr Abrams is known for his hawkish foreign policy views for the different positions he took during the Ronald Reagan and the George W Bush years, where he oversaw policy on Latin America, Israel, Lebanon and Iran.

Elliott Abrams talks to reporters after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo named the hawkish former Republican official to handle U.S. policy toward Venezuela during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Jan. 25, 2019. The appointment of Abrams follows the Trump administration's decision this week to recognize the leader of Venezuela's parliament as the country's legitimate leader and call for President Nicolas Maduro to step down. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“Elliott will be a true asset to our mission to help the Venezuelan people fully restore democracy” Mr Pompeo said on Friday.

He said Mr Abrams will be in charge of “all things related to our efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela …The road ahead will be driven by the demands of the Venezuelan people.”

Mr Abrams has favoured regime change in Venezuela. In an article from September 2017 for the Council on Foreign Relations Mr Abrams wrote about North Korea “of course we want a different regime there…The same goes for other countries ruled by horrendous tyrannies, such as Iran and Venezuela.”

On Friday, he called the situation “deep, difficult and dangerous.”

In 2017, former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to recruit Mr Abrams for a Middle East position but his effort was blocked by the White House. Mr Abrams is a former “never-Trumper” and has heavily criticised Mr Trump during the 2016 campaign. He also played a role in Iran-contra scandal and was convicted in 1991 for withholding information from Congress before being pardoned by George W Bush.

The US is trying to increase the pressure on the Maduro government which is supported  by Russia, China, Iran, Bolivia, Turkey, Syria and Cuba. Reuters reported on Friday that “private military contractors who do secret missions for Russia flew into Venezuela in the past few days to beef up security for Nicolas Maduro”.

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary group of Cossacks with ties to Russian military contractors, told the agency that the number of Russian contractors in Venezuela may be about 400.

“The contractors are associated with the so-called Wagner group whose members, mostly ex-service personnel, fought clandestinely in support of Russian forces in Syria and Ukraine” it said.

The US is weighing new oil and banking sanctions on the Maduro governments, while ensuring the safety of its diplomats in Venezuela.

The EU added to pressure on Mr Maduro on Saturday by calling on him to start preparing for elections "over the next few days" or risk losing recognition as the Venezuelan president.

“The EU strongly calls for the urgent holding of free, transparent and credible presidential elections in accordance with internationally democratic standards and the Venezuelan constitutional order,” European foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.

“In the absence of an announcement on the organisation of fresh elections with the necessary guarantees over the next days, the EU will take further actions, including on the issue of recognition of the country’s leadership.”