CARACAS, Venezuela (AP)- Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress has declared President Nicolas Maduro “illegitimate,” moving a step closer to implementing a plan to challenge the socialist leader by declaring a caretaker government and calling early elections.
A resolution adopted on Tuesday accuses Maduro of “usurping” power and says his administration’s acts will no longer carry legal authority. Another resolution seeks to pry the military’s loyalty away from Maduro by offering protection to members of the armed forces who support any transitional government.
“This is a historic accord,” said National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who in less than two weeks on the job has managed to revitalise the often out-manoeuvered opposition.
However, though weakened by Venezuela’s economic collapse, Maduro so far has retained the support of the generals and other government institutions, including the courts, which previously ruled actions by the National Assembly invalid.
In invoking an article of the constitution about the transfer of power, lawmakers promised to hold early elections if and when Maduro steps aside, immediately drawing support from foreign capitals. In Washington, Senator Marco Rubio, an influential voice on US policy toward Latin America, said it was time for the Trump administration to recognise Guaido as interim president – a title that Guaido has not claimed so far.
Vice President Mike Pence called Guaido and said the US strongly supports his decision to “declare the country’s presidency vacant.”
Tensions in the oil-rich nation have been rising since Maduro took the oath of office January 10 to begin a second, six-year term that many foreign governments considered illegitimate because most popular opposition parties were banned from running in the May presidential election and leading opposition politicians were jailed or driven into exile.
Guaido said last week that he is ready to step into the presidency temporarily and call for new elections, but only if he sees support from the military and common Venezuelans in nationwide street demonstrations set for later this month.
The resolution adopted on Tuesday laying out a roadmap for a political transition led by the National Assembly came amid a frenzy of legislative activity. Among other measures approved was the one aimed at weakening military support for the president.
Maduro has cultivated a stronghold within the military by appointing generals to powerful government posts as Venezuela collapsed into a historic economic and political crisis, creating steep challenges for the anti-Maduro politicians.
“It’s not going to be simple after 20 years of repression,” Guaido said about the military.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said the military would be a key player behind the scenes to drive any regime change. The opposition is offering the armed forces incentives to break away rather than continue supporting Maduro, he said.
“They’re laying the institutional grounds for both the military and the police in an eventual transition,” Moya Ocampos said. “It gives them incentives to defect rather than to collaborate with the Maduro regime.”
But so far there is little sign that support within the top ranks of the armed forces is fraying.
Defence Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said on Tuesday that he was “worried” about attempts to subvert the constitution not by Maduro but his opponents.
“We must tell the Venezuelan people every day that the Bolivian Armed Forces deeply love the ideas of the commander Hugo Chavez,” he said standing alongside Maduro, referring to the president’s mentor and predecessor.