U.S. President Donald Trump recognized Wednesday Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the interim president of the country, marking the most significant escalation in the ongoing feud between Washington and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Guaido is the president of Venezuela's National Assembly, which Maduro stripped of its power and refuses to recognize amid continued international recognition. Just moments before Trump's announcement Guaido, an industrial engineer, reportedly declared himself interim president before an assembled crowd in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital.
"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," Trump said in announcing his decision. "The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."
The president further called on other western hemisphere governments to follow suit in declaring GuaidoVenezuela's legitimate leader while pledging to maintain economic pressure on Maduro's government.
"We continue to hold the illegitimate Maduro regime directly responsible for any threats it may pose to the safety of the Venezuelan people," Trump said in a statement.
Brazil and the Organization of American States had already recognized Guaido as the country's official leader prior to his official announcement.
The opposition leader has called for new elections in the country, and his claim to power on Wednesday is highly likely to prompt a standoff with Maduro that could escalate into widespread violence.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Maduro to step down shortly after Trump made his announcement, declaring Washington "will work closely with the legitimately elected National Assembly."
"We repeat our call to the Venezuelan military and security forces to support democracy and protect all Venezuelan citizens," he said in a statement.
Guaido has called for nationwide protests against Maduro in the hopes that sustained popular pressure will oust Maduro, who was sworn in earlier this month for another six-year term, from government.
Security forces have attempted to disperse the demonstrators with tear gas, according to multiple reports. At least one protester was reported dead.
Maduro has repeatedly lashed out at the U.S., saying Washington is waging an economic war against him and his government amid a sweeping sanctions campaign.
The International Monetary Fund forecasts inflation in Venezuela to hit 10 million percent in 2019 amid an economic crisis in the country sparked by a global depreciation in the price of crude oil -- Venezuela's main economic driver.
That is the highest, by far, of all countries evaluated by the fund as Venezuela continues to face widespread shortages of daily goods and medical necessities.