Washington — President Trump recognized the chief opposition leader in Venezuela, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó, as the country's legitimate interim president. The rare move by the White House comes aserupted across the South American nation on Wednesday.
"In its role as the only legitimate branch of government duly elected by the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly invoked the country's constitution to declare Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant," the president wrote in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."
Guaidó, who leads the opposition-controlled national assembly, declared himself the country's acting president in front of thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to denounce the repressive government of President Nicolás Maduro. Guaidó is currently in hiding at the Colombian embassy in Caracas, an opposition aide and a source close to Maduro's government told CBS News. On Twitter, he thanked Mr. Trump for backing "the will of the Venezuelan people."
In his announcement, Mr. Trump urged the international community to follow his lead and recognize Guaidó as Venezuela's legitimate leader. "I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy," the president added in his statement.
A senior administration official said the U.S. government hopes Maduro will seek an "exit route" and take part in a peaceful transition of power. But the official added that "all options are on the table" for the administration to respond if Maduro and "his cronies" organize a violent crackdown against demonstrators and harm national assembly members. The president reiterated this position after hosting a health care roundtable at the White House. "All options are on the table," he told reporters on Wednesday.
After the announcement in Washington, Maduro said his government would break diplomatic relations with the U.S. He told his ardent supporters that American diplomats had 72 hours to leave the country. In a letter posted on Twitter, Guaidó asked foreign diplomatic personnel to remain in Venezuela.
The Department of Defense is working with the State Department to determine if U.S. citizens will need military assistance to leave Venezuela within three days, a defense official told CBS News.
Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and the Organization of American States (OAS) joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela's leader Wednesday.
Bolivian president Evo Morales expressed his support for Maduro, a staunch ally and fellow leftist firebrand. "The claws of imperialism again seek to fatally harm the democracy and self-determination of the peoples of South America," Morales wrote on Twitter, denouncing American meddling in Latin America. A spokesperson for the Mexican foreign ministry said diplomatic relations between Mexico and Venezuela had not changed "for the time being."
In recognizing Guaidó's leadership, the White House remains in lockstep with its tough stance against Maduro's government.
The Trump administration has imposed several economic sanctions on Maduro's government and companies with ties to the Venezuelan leftist leader, who has consolidated power by stacking the judiciary with his allies, overhauling the legislative branch and maintaining a tight grip on the military. Mr. Trump included Venezuelan government officials in the third version of his travel ban, which the Supreme Court upheld last summer.
On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence said Venezuelans have the "unwavering support" of the United States in their effort to restore democracy to their country. In his video, Pence called Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power." The vice president said the U.S. joined other "freedom-loving" nations in recognizing the popularly elected National Assembly as the "last vestige of democracy" in Venezuela.
Oil-rich Venezuela was once considered one of Latin America's wealthiest nations. But under Maduro — who replaced the late Hugo Chavez, another leader accused of authoritarian tendencies, in 2013 — economic turmoil, skyrocketing inflation, food shortages, mounting crime and government corruption have plunged the country deep into a socio-political crisis.
To stifle discontent over the floundering economy, weakened further by international sanctions and plummeting oil production, Maduro has resorted to political oppression and reportedly, even torture. Recent elections in the country have been denounced by United States and the international community as unfair and rigged. The Organization of American States (OAS) recently passed a resolution agreeing not to recognize the legitimacy of Maduro's new term, which began on January 10.
The dire situation has prompted more than 2.3 million Venezuelans to flee the country since 2014 — an exodus Human Rights Watch called "the largest migration crisis of its kind in recent Latin American history." More than one million Venezuelans have fled to neighboring Colombia, hundreds of thousands to Peru, Ecuador and other countries in the region — and more than 72,000 have come to the U.S.
David Martin, Margaret Brennan and Fin Gomez contributed to this report.