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U.S. Recognizes Opposition Leader As Venezuela's Head Of State


Venezuela has two men claiming to be president right now. Opposition leader Juan Guaido and sitting leader Nicolas Maduro are locked in a battle for power. Speaking to cheering crowds yesterday, Guaido declared himself the country's interim president.


JUAN GUAIDO: (Speaking Spanish).


MARTIN: The Trump administration quickly gave him its support, but Maduro has not agreed to cede power. In fact, in response, he announced a break in diplomatic relations with Washington, D.C., and ordered U.S. personnel out of the country. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas and joins us now.

Phil, I guess just the big question - who is in charge this morning?

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Oh, I think there's no doubt that, in truth, Maduro remains in office. And he is the de facto president of the country right now. He controls all the instruments of power. He controls the Supreme Court, the intelligence agencies and the military. Which way the military goes in this will be critical in determining the outcome of it. So far, there's no really concrete evidence that's emerged, although there are a lot of rumors, that suggest the military's ready to abandon Maduro. But that could be a really key factor.

So we have one man, Juan Guaido, who's the head of the National Assembly. He's declared himself interim president. He says he's a transitional leader until free and fair elections are held. The U.S. supports him. Many others do, too. The U.S. has helped orchestrate this. But Maduro, in fact, remains in office.

MARTIN: I mean, you say the U.S. has helped orchestrate this. It is interesting. There are a lot of international implications to what's happening in Venezuela right now.

REEVES: Yeah. I mean, we are witnessing a major coordinated drive to push Maduro out of office to end the economic and humanitarian crisis that's been going on here for a long time that's been getting worse and that's been causing severe problems in the neighborhood because of mass migration. And the U.S. is playing a central role in that. Maduro's accusing it of orchestrating a coup, and he's drawing comparisons with the Cold War years when the U.S. was - you know, U.S. interventions in Latin America, including in organizing behind-the-scene coups - he's drawing that comparison.

And let's not forget that Maduro has some big friends on the international stage. His government's been propped up for years by China and Russia and, more recently, Turkey. And Turkey's been expressing their support for him. They say that by recognizing someone else as president, the U.S. and others could cause chaos here.

MARTIN: In the meantime, the U.S. diplomats are caught in the middle of this. I mean, Venezuelans in general are the ones who are really bearing the brunt. But are the U.S. diplomats going to leave now that Maduro has told them they have to?

REEVES: Well, this has become a really critical issue. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that Maduro doesn't have the legal authority to break diplomatic relations with the U.S. because, you know, the U.S. doesn't recognize him as president. It therefore follows that the U.S. thinks Maduro doesn't have the legal authority to throw out its diplomats. But what happens if they don't leave? Maduro controls the streets here right now. He controls the security forces. Last night on TV, a senior member of the socialist party was talking - which is the ruling party, allied with Maduro's regime - was talking about cutting off water and electricity to the U.S. Embassy if the diplomats don't leave after 72 hours, as instructed. Now, that may well just be rhetoric to please the crowd. But we really don't know how this is going to play out.

MARTIN: What's Guaido's next step? I mean, it's one thing for him to stand among throngs of cheering supporters and say, I am the interim president. But what's he going to do to bring about a new vote, if he even has the ability to do that?

REEVES: Well, it's difficult to know because the National Assembly has been totally sidelined by Maduro for a long time now. And the Supreme Court here, which he controls, has just reinforced that by declaring the National Assembly's decisions null and void. So you know, he has declared himself to be interim president. But where he's going to take that is difficult to know. Having said that, having all that international support - especially from the U.S., the biggest player on the block - is extremely important. It's a source of influence for him, and it's also important because it's backed up by U.S. threats of more sanctions.

MARTIN: Just briefly, Phil, what are you hearing from people in the streets? I mean, this is political chaos there. What are the effects of people's day-to-day lives?

REEVES: Well, you know, the protests against Maduro yesterday were huge. Hundreds of thousands of people were on the street. They were very happy when Guaido declared himself interim president, although they weren't ecstatic. You know, they've had high hopes before only to see them dashed. They're exhausted.

On the other hand, Maduro does have some supporters. His socialist party had big rallies yesterday. And they all see this as another chapter in the U.S. war against Venezuela, as they call it, aimed at taking control of their country.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves reporting from Caracas. Thanks so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.