CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013, as the U.S.-backed opposition claimed the legitimate mantle of leadership, and President Trump promptly recognized him as Venezuela’s interim president.

The dramatic developments came as anti-Maduro protests drew hundreds of thousands of people into Venezuelan streets. 

“Today, I am officially recognizing the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela,” Trump said in a statement. “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 people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.”

As the international campaign against him grew, Maduro, the anointed successor of socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, was confronting a new protagonist in the form of Guaidó. Before a cheering throng, the 35-year-old industrial engineer and recently named head of the country’s National Assembly took the long-awaited step Wednesday of declaring himself interim president — in an attempt to replace Maduro as the legitimate head of state. 

Though stripped of its power by Maduro, the assembly is widely recognized internationally as the country’s last democratic institution. Even before Guaidó’s announcement, he had been recognized by Brazil and the head of the Organization of American States as Venezuela’s rightful leader. Now, his official declaration is set to dramatically escalate international attempts led by the United States to force Maduro from office after elections last year seen as a fraudulent power grab, even as it is set to put Guaidó at high risk in a country were opposition leaders have been arrested, tortured and exiled. 

“We will stay on the street until Venezuela is liberated!” Guaidó told the crowd in Caracas.Pence to Venezuelans: ‘Maduro is a dictator’

Vice President Pence called Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro a “dictator” in a message to the people of Venezuela released Jan. 22, ahead of expected protests. (Reuters)

Amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Caracas, the U.S.-backed opposition here sought Wednesday to fill the streets with protesters and spark the beginning of a sustained uprising aimed at ousting Maduro from office.

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