With renewed US backing, Guaidó pushes anti-Maduro fight

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The challenge in ousting President Nicolás Maduro has only increased, Juan Guaidó said Tuesday as the Trump administration vowed its continued recognition of the opposition leader as the nation’s interim president, even if his coalition loses control of congress — its last major stronghold.

Major parties in the opposition led by Guaidó have announced plans to boycott upcoming congressional elections, accusing Maduro’s government of hijacking the process. Their decision not to participate throws into question their legitimacy after their terms end in early January.

However, the State Department’s top official on Venezuela testifying in Washington said nothing Maduro does will alter the position held by the U.S. and dozens of other nations about Venezuela’s legitimate leadership.

“In our view the constitutional president of Venezuela today and after Jan. 5, 2021, is Juan Guaidó,” Trump’s special representative to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, told the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations in a hearing. “(Maduro) will not change the legal status for many countries around the world — and especially for us.”

Maduro’s government has scheduled a Dec. 6 election for a new National Assembly, which is now controlled by the opposition. As the body’s leader, Guaidó last year claimed the nation’s presidency, arguing that Maduro’s reelection had been fraudulent, in part because top opposition figures were banned from running.

Speaking with The Associated Press in Caracas in a virtual interview, Guaidó said boycotting the congressional elections is justified because the conditions set by Maduro’s government eroded the electoral process beyond the 2018 presidential election — which the opposition also rejected

“Look, we’re fighting here for democracy,” Guaidó said, calling Maduro an “authoritarian dictator” responsible for “genocide” and “trafficking” in gold and drugs at Venezuela’s expense. “The fight we’re waging in Venezuela rises from the legitimacy of our constitution.”

The opposition leader said he hasn’t talked to the campaign of Trump’s rival, Joe Biden, and the Venezuelan opposition leader offered no new strategy for toppling Maduro beyond relying on international pressure and sanctions to further isolate Maduro.

The U.S. is among more than 50 nations that have recognized Guaidó as interim leader, saying Venezuela’s presidency is vacant because Maduro’s rule is illegitimate.

However, 18 months since Guaidó took the leadership in the campaign to force the president out, Maduro remains in control with backing from key international allies like Russia, China, Cuba and Iran. He also is supported by Venezuela’s military.

U.S. lawmakers questioning Abrams gave scathing criticism of how the U.S. handled efforts to help Venezuela cast off Maduro’s authoritative government and return the once-wealthy oil nation to democratic rule.

“Our Venezuela policy over the last year and a half has been an unmitigated disaster,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. “If we aren’t honest about that, then we can’t self-correct.”

Murphy said the rushed U.S. policy has allowed Maduro to label Guaidó an “American patsy” while hardening Russian and Cuban backing of Maduro.

Guaidó said he is confident that Venezuela’s opposition has bipartisan support in the United States and the international community to overthrow Maduro.

An estimated 5 million Venezuelans have fled shortages of gasoline, food and a broken healthcare system that is showing signs of buckling as the new coronavirus surges.

Despite the critics on the Trump administration’s handling of Venezuela, Abrams said it is possible to create change in the crisis-stricken South American nation.

“The best thing to do would be a bipartisan expression that this policy is not going to change,” Abrams said, noting the need for sanctions and criminal prosecutions. “We’re going to stay with it, so this is going to keep on going year after year until this regime is replaced.”