Britain has issued the embattled Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro, a stark ultimatum, warning him it would throw its weight behind the country’s self-declared interim leader unless he called an election within the next eight days – as the US government called on the world to “pick a side” in the crisis.
Echoing calls from Berlin, Paris and Madrid, Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, said on Saturday it was clear Maduro was no longer the legitimate leader of the Latin American country after last year’s “deeply flawed” election.
The coordinated move by western powers to boost the opposition challenger Juan Guaidó came as the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, addressed the United Nations security council in New York and not only said that it was now time for countries to “pick a side” on Venezuela after Washington recognised Guaidó as the nation’s head of state but also urged countries to disconnect financially from Maduro’s government.
Pompeo said: “Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem. Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games.”
In heated back-and-forth exchanges at a UN security council meeting, the opposing camp led by Venezuela and Russia, which has invested heavily in Venezuela’s oil industry, accused Washington of attempting a coup and lambasted Europeans’ demand that elections be called within eight days.
Guaidó, who took the helm of the national assembly on 5 January, proclaimed himself interim president on Wednesday. The US, Canada and a string of Latin American countries recognized the young leader in quick succession.
And late on Saturday Guaidó gained support from a key military official. Venezuela’s defence attache to Washington, Col Jose Luis Silva, told Reuters that he had broken with the Maduro government and recognized Guaidó as interim president.
And Hunt tweeted that Britain would join a growing number of countries in backing 35-year-old Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader unless Maduro called a snap election.
He said: “After banning opposition candidates, ballot box stuffing and counting irregularities in a deeply flawed election it is clear Nicolás Maduro is not the legitimate leader of Venezuela.
“@jguaido is the right person to take Venezuela forward. If there are not fresh & fair elections announced within 8 days UK will recognise him as interim president to take forward the political process towards democracy. Time for a new start for the suffering ppl of Venezuela.”
The foreign secretary’s comments came shortly before the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, also spoke out in favour of new elections in Venezuela, echoing similar comments from France’s president, Emmanuel Macron; the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez.
The interventions reinforced a clear split in the international community, where Maduro has continuing support from two key members of the UN security council, Moscow and Beijing.
On Friday, a Labour spokesman called for a negotiated settlement and warned against British intervention. “We oppose outside interference in Venezuela, whether from the US or anywhere else,” he said. “The future of Venezuela is a matter for Venezuelans.”
Jeremy Corbyn has strongly criticised foreign attempts to undermine Maduro.
The bid for power by Guaidó, head of the country’s national assembly, is the most direct challenge to Maduro’s rule following years of protests at home and international efforts to isolate his regime which has presided over a growing humanitarian crisis fuelled by falling oil prices and government mismanagement.
Maduro has vowed to defend his socialist rule and accused his opponent of working with the US to overthrow him and install a “puppet government”. The president, who faced rare mass protests last week, still has the support of the military.
Pompeo, who was expected to address a security council meeting last night that was also due to be attended by the Venezuelan foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, said he hoped the “international community will disconnect their financial systems from the Maduro regime.”
Russia had objected to the council’s focus on Venezuela, according to UN diplomats. The country’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said US actions were an “obvious call for a coup d’etat” which would threaten peace.
The meeting came a day after Guaidó vowed to remain on the streets until his country had secured a transitional government.
“They can cut a flower, but they will never keep spring from coming,” Guaidó told supporters on Friday, alluding to a similar phrase from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
Both sides attempted dialogue last year, but talks collapsed as Maduro called an early election that excluded the country’s most popular opposition leaders.
Analysts fear the standoff between both men could set the scene for further violence after days of political turmoil.
The office of the UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has said it has called for an investigation after receiving credible reports that security forces, or members of pro-government armed groups, shot at least 20 people during protests on Tuesday and Wednesday.
According to the Penal Forum human rights group, 369 people have been detained since Monday.
On Wednesday, Maduro gave US diplomats 72 hours to leave the country, an order Washington said it would defy by keeping the embassy open, though it told non-essential staff to leave.