U.S. to deliver over 200 tons of aid to Venezuelan border

Sacks containing humanitarian aid are pictured at a warehouse near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. military aircraft are expected to deliver more than 200 tons of humanitarian aid to the Venezuelan border in Colombia, with the shipment likely to take place on Saturday, a U.S. official said on Friday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. State Department planned to make an announcement about the shipment on Friday but provided no further details. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. special envoy on Venezuela last week said the aid effort was being coordinated with the opposition team but said the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has overseen an economic collapse in the oil-rich South American country that has left millions struggling to buy food and medicines and has fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An aid convoy supplied by the United States and Colombia arrived in the Colombian border town of Cucuta last week, where it is being held in warehouses. Maduro has refused to let supplies in.

Self-declared president Juan Guaido, the opposition leader, told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23.

Guaido invoked constitutional provisions to declare himself interim president last month, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a sham. Most Western countries, including the United States and many of Venezuela’s neighbors, have recognized Guaido as the legitimate head of state.

Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China and control of Venezuelan state institutions including the military.

Seeking to strengthen support for Guaido, the United States has said it will try to channel aid to Venezuela via Colombia and possibly Brazil.

Maduro has called the aid a U.S.-orchestrated show and denies any crisis. However, opposition member Gustavo Tarre has said the sole aim is to ease “the suffering of Venezuelans” and has denied any political, economic or military motive. [nL1N2090UC]

(Reporting By Idrees Ali; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Venezuela opposition takes steps to seize oil revenue as Maduro issues threat

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, attends a session of Venezuela's National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela February 13, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero

By Corina Pons and Angus Berwick

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress named new temporary boards of directors to state-oil firm PDVSA on Wednesday, in an effort to wrest the OPEC nation’s oil revenue from President Nicolas Maduro.

An increasingly isolated Maduro lashed out at the congress leader Juan Guaido, saying in an interview that he would face the courts “sooner or later” for violating the constitution after he declared himself interim president last month.

Although many Western countries have recognized Guaido as legitimate head of state, Maduro retains control of state institutions and Guaido needs funds if he is to assemble an interim government.

Controlling PDVSA’s U.S. refiner Citgo Petroleum, Venezuela’s most valuable foreign asset, would go some way to helping in that, though seizing the reigns of PDVSA itself seems improbable while Maduro remains in power.

“We have taken a step forward with the reconstruction of PDVSA,” Guaido said on Twitter, just after congress named the directors. “With this decision, we are not only protecting our assets, we also avoid continued destruction.”

PDVSA’s crude output has slumped to 70-year lows, due to crushing debts, widespread corruption, and little maintenance of its infrastructure. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which backs Guaido, imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector on Jan. 28, aimed at curbing exports to the United States and upping the pressure on Maduro.

The proposed Citgo board would be composed of Venezuelans Luisa Palacios, Angel Olmeta, Luis Urdaneta and Edgar Rincon, all of whom are currently living in the United States, plus one American director.

The nominations fuel a growing duel for control between Guaido and Maduro, who has promised he will not allow Citgo to be “stolen.” The mechanics of how the new board would take over are unclear, and there are likely to be court challenges to the board’s authority, people familiar with the deliberations say.

Citgo and PDVSA did not immediately reply to requests to comment.

Bulgarian security officials said on Wednesday that the country has blocked transfers out of several bank accounts which have received millions of euros from PDVSA.

GUAIDO TO FACE COURTS?

Guaido invoked a constitutional provision three weeks ago to assume Venezuela’s presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election last year was a sham.

Maduro, in an interview released on Wednesday by Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen TV, said Guaido was seeking to divide the country and convince the Trump administration to launch a foreign intervention.

“This person, who believes that politics is a game and he can violate the constitution and the law, sooner or later will have to answer before the courts,” Maduro said, adding he was “absolutely sure” of this.

“If the American empire dares to touch even one palm leaf in our territory, this will turn into a new Vietnam,” he said.

A senior U.S. lawmaker said on Wednesday that Congress would not give backing to any U.S. military intervention in Venezuela.

The Trump administration has said it wants a peaceful resolution to the crisis but Trump has repeatedly refused to rule out military action.

“I think there are a number of solutions, a number of different options, and we look at all options,” Trump said when asked about the issue on Wednesday, in an appearance at the White House with Colombian President Ivan Duque.

In the meantime, the United States and other countries are trying to channel aid to Venezuela.

Guaido told a huge rally of supporters on Tuesday that humanitarian aid would enter the country on Feb. 23, setting the stage for a showdown with Maduro, who has refused to let supplies in.

Maduro denies there is an economic crisis despite a widespread lack of food and medicine and hyperinflation.

(Reporting by Angus Berwick, Corina Pons, Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas, Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City; Writing by Angus Berwick, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Venezuela opposition envoys in Rome to press Guaido’s cause

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, talks to the media after attending a religious event in Caracas, Venezuela February 10, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Philip Pullella and Vivian Sequera

VATICAN CITY/CARACAS (Reuters) – Envoys for Venezuela’s self-declared caretaker leader Juan Guaido met Vatican officials and lobbied the Italian government for support on Monday in their quest to keep international pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

The Vatican, which has offered to mediate, called for respect for rights and avoidance of bloodshed after Guaido’s bid to end two decades of increasingly authoritarian leftist rule in the volatile OPEC member nation of 30 million people.

Members of the Vatican Secretariat of State met a delegation including Francisco Sucre, president of the foreign affairs commission of Venezuela’s National Assembly, and Antonio Ledezma, former mayor of Caracas.

They also met Italy’s deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini.

“We’re in Italy to seek more support for our President @jguaido,” tweeted Ledezma. “We’re doing well, but we need to finish this with victory.”

The Vatican “underscored the deep concern that a just and peaceful solution could be found urgently to overcome the crisis while respecting human rights, seeking the good of all the country’s people and avoiding bloodshed,” it said in a statement.

Pope Francis has said the Vatican could mediate if both sides asked. Maduro wants that, but Venezuela’s opposition is skeptical given past dialogue failures and Guaido says the starting point for any talks must be Maduro’s exit.

Venezuela’s opposition regards Maduro as an incompetent dictator who has wrecked their economy and crushed dissent, while he calls them puppets of Washington seeking a coup in order to control the nation’s vast oil reserves.

Rank-and-file opposition supporters, though often Roman Catholics, are suspicious of the Vatican given its support of past talks that have enabled Maduro to win time and survive various waves of protests.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin calls the Holy See’s stance “positive neutrality”, saying it has to stay above both sides if it is to help.

The Venezuela conflict has fed into a wider geopolitical struggle. Along with U.S. President Donald Trump, numerous Latin American and European nations have recognized Guaido as interim president and backed his calls for a new, free election.

But other powers, including Russia and China who have billions of dollars invested and loaned to Caracas, have denounced outside interference and backed Maduro.

Breaking the unity of other major European countries, Italy’s coalition government is divided over Venezuela.

Salvini, far-right leader of the Northern League party and also interior minister, favors recognizing Guaido, but its coalition partner the 5-Star Movement believes that is a bad precedent.

Salvini telephoned Guaido while the Venezuelan delegation was visiting him, stressing his opposition to Maduro and support for a new vote, his office said.

Guaido, who heads Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly, invoked a constitutional provision last month to declare himself president.

As well as the Vatican, Norway, another traditional international mediator, has also offered to help with dialogue.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Vivian Sequera in Caracas, Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Exclusive: U.S. in direct contact with Venezuelan military, urging defections – source

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan Colonel Jose Luis Silva, Venezuela’s Military Attache at its Washington embassy to the United States, is interviewed by Reuters after announcing that he is defecting from the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Washington, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

By Luc Cohen, Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is holding direct communications with members of Venezuela’s military urging them to abandon leader Nicolas Maduro and is also preparing new sanctions aimed at increasing pressure on him, a senior White House official said.

The Trump administration expects further military defections from Maduro’s side, the official told Reuters in an interview, despite only a few senior officers having done so since opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president last month, earning the recognition of the United States and dozens of other countries.

“We believe these to be those first couple pebbles before we start really seeing bigger rocks rolling down the hill,” the official said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re still having conversations with members of the former Maduro regime, with military members, although those conversations are very, very limited.”

The official declined to provide details on the discussions or the level at which they are being held, and it was unclear whether such contacts could create cracks in the Venezuelan socialist leader’s support from the military, which is pivotal to his grip on power.

With the Venezuelan military still apparently loyal to Maduro, a source in Washington close to the opposition expressed doubts whether the Trump administration has laid enough groundwork to spur a wider mutiny in the ranks where many officers are suspected of benefiting from corruption and drug trafficking.

Guaido says the May 2018 vote in which Maduro won a second term as president was a sham and on Jan. 23 invoked a constitutional provision to declare himself president, promising free and fair elections.

VENEZUELAN ASSETS

The U.S. government also sees European allies as likely to do more to prevent Maduro from transferring or hiding Venezuela government assets held outside the country, the U.S. official said.

Major European countries have joined the United States in backing Guaido but they have stopped short of the sweeping oil sanctions and financial measures that Washington has imposed.

At the same time, the Trump administration is readying further possible sanctions on Venezuela, the official said.

Previous rounds have targeted dozens of Venezuelan military and government officials, including Maduro himself, and last month finally hit the OPEC member’s vital oil sector. But the administration has stopped short of imposing so-called “secondary” sanctions, which would punish non-U.S. companies for doing business with the Venezuela government or the state oil monopoly PDVSA.

The U.S. official said that Washington had every tool available to apply pressure on Maduro and his associates “to accept a legitimate democratic transition.”

The U.S. government is also weighing possible sanctions on Cuban military and intelligence officials whom it says are helping Maduro remain in power, a second U.S. official and person familiar with the deliberations have told Reuters.

Maduro’s government has accused Guaido, who has galvanized Venezuela’s opposition, of attempting to stage a U.S.-directed coup.

General Francisco Yanez of the air force’s high command became the first active Venezuelan general to recognize Guaido, but he is one of about 2,000 generals. Venezuela’s chief military attache to the United States also said he was defecting late last month.

Guaido has actively courted members of the military with promises of amnesty and preferential legal treatment if they disavow Maduro and disobey his orders, and Washington this week raised the prospect of dropping sanctions on senior Venezuelan officers if they recognize Guaido.

Maduro still has the support of the military high command, and now routinely appears in pre-recorded events at military bases where officers stand behind him and chant triumphal slogans such as “Loyal always, traitors never.”

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Luc Cohen and Roberta Rampton; additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

Venezuela aid trucks arrive in Colombia as EU calls for dialogue

A man looks on after trucks arrived at a warehouse, where international humanitarian aid for Venezuela will be stored according to authorities, near the Tienditas cross-border bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, in Cucuta, Colombia February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Nelson Bocanegra and Anggy Polanco

CUCUTA, Colombia/TIENDITAS, Venezuela (Reuters) – Trucks carrying humanitarian aid for crisis-stricken Venezuela arrived in the Colombian border city of Cucuta on Thursday as diplomatically-isolated President Nicolas Maduro appeared set to block its entry amid an escalating political crisis.

The arrival of the aid convoy, which includes supplies provided by the United States, has increased the pressure on Maduro hours after a European Union-backed group called for dialogue and elections and warned against interventionism.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido reacts during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares/File Photo

Maduro has rejected the aid convoy as a “political show” and vowed to remain in office despite dozens of nations around the world disavowing his leadership and recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful head of state.

Escorted by police motorcycles, the trucks pulled into Cucuta, where Venezuelans were waiting to see whether Maduro’s government would clear the border road he has blocked and allow the humanitarian shipments to pass.

The crowd waved signs denouncing Maduro as a “cancer” and celebrated the arrival of the convoy.

“This gives me such hope, especially for the family that I left behind, my children, my wife,” said Israel Escobar, 42, a Venezuelan who came to Cucuta a year ago to sell ice-cream on the streets. “This is one more step towards ending that terrible regime.”

Across the border on the Venezuelan side, a group of around 60 protesters demanded that the aid be let through.

Maduro has overseen an economic collapse that has left millions struggling to eat and fueled an unprecedented migration crisis in the region.

An estimated 3 million Venezuelans have left the oil-rich OPEC country since 2015, some 800,000 of whom have ended up in Colombia.

But Maduro showed little sign of relenting on aid, as a bridge linking Colombia and Venezuela remained blocked with a cistern and two shipping containers.

“The so-called ‘humanitarian aid’ operation is a show, a cheap show, a bad show,” Maduro said in an interview with Mexican newspaper La Jornada published on Thursday. “You can be sure that it won’t disturb Venezuela.”

On Thursday, he appeared in an event at the presidential palace as part of a campaign by government supporters demanding an end to U.S. aggression against Venezuela.

Elliott Abrams, Washington’s special envoy on Venezuela, said the aid effort was being coordinated with Guaido’s team but that the aid would not be forced into Venezuela.

“Let it in, that’s what we’re asking, let it in,” Abrams told reporters at a State Department briefing, calling on members of Venezuela’s armed forces to persuade Maduro to step down or to disobey his orders.

He said the supplies would be delivered to Venezuelans when it was “logistically safe” to do so.

DIALOGUE AND ELECTIONS

Washington last week implemented crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, which are expected to exacerbate the hyperinflationary economic crisis.

Offering a counterpoint to Washington’s hard-line stance, the EU and a group of Latin American governments that have kept a moderate line on Venezuela called for dialogue and fresh elections.

The EU-backed International Contact Group on Venezuela in its inaugural meeting in the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo said overly forceful intervention could aggravate the crisis.

EU Foreign Policy chief Federica Mogherini said a resolution ultimately must come from the people of Venezuela.

“This is not only the most desirable result but is the only result if we want to avoid more suffering and a chaotic process,” Mogherini said.

Maduro via Twitter welcomed the call for dialogue.

Critics have said three previous dialogue processes have allowed the ruling Socialist Party to stall for time without making major concessions on key issues including imprisoned opposition politicians and electoral transparency.

Guaido has galvanized the opposition since taking over as head of Venezuela’s National Assembly in January. Last month, he declared himself interim president, opening the door for Washington and others to recognize him as the legitimate leader.

Maduro, who calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to foment a coup, has maintained power with the backing of Venezuela’s military.

One Venezuelan Air Force general and several Venezuelan diplomats abroad have turned on Maduro and recognized Guaido.

The websites of Venezuelan embassies in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico on Thursday posted statements recognizing Guaido, which the embassies quickly dismissed as the work of hackers, reiterating “absolute support” for Maduro.

The International Monetary Fund, which a new government in Caracas would likely call on for financial assistance, is awaiting guidance from its member countries on whether to recognize Guaido, IMF spokesman Gerry Rice said on Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Malena Castaldi in Montevideo, Helen Murphy in Bogota, David Lawder, Idrees Ali, Phil Stewart, Lesley Wroughton, Matt Spetalnick and Luc Cohen in Washington; Adam Jourdan in Buenos Aires and Steve Scherer in Rome; Writing by Paul Simao, Adam Jourdan and Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Will Dunham and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.S. military ready to protect diplomats in Venezuela: admiral

People attend a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's government at Plaza Bolivar in Lima, Peru February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Guadalupe Pardo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities in Venezuela if needed, the U.S. admiral in charge of American forces in South America said on Thursday.

“We are prepared to protect U.S. personnel and diplomatic facilities if necessary,” Navy Admiral Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

He did not provide any details on how the U.S. military might respond.

Venezuela’s collapse under President Nicolas Maduro, with the country, plunged into poverty and driving some 3 million people to flee abroad, has forced nations worldwide to take a stance, particularly after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself president last month.

Major European Union nations have joined the United States, Canada and a group of Latin American countries in recognizing Guaido as the rightful interim ruler of the South American nation.

Faller said Venezuela had about 2,000 generals and the majority of them were loyal to Maduro because of the wealth they have amassed from drug trafficking, petroleum revenue and business revenue.

Still, he said, rank-and-file soldiers were starving “just like the population” of Venezuela.

“The legitimate government of President Guaido has offered amnesty, and a place for the military forces, most of which we think would be loyal to the Constitution, not to a dictator, a place to go,” Faller said.

He added that the Venezuelan military was degraded.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)

International Red Cross steps up aid operations in Venezuela

People wait in line outside of a currency exchange house in Caracas, Venezuela, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

GENEVA (Reuters) – The International Committee of the Red Cross has doubled its budget in Venezuela to 18 million Swiss francs in recent weeks and is also helping Venezuelan migrants in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, ICRC President Peter Maurer said on Wednesday.

The ICRC, a neutral independent aid agency, is working with the national Venezuelan Red Cross, mainly on health projects, and not taking sides in the political conflict between President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido, Maurer said.

“So that is a growing operation,” Maurer told a news briefing. “At the present moment, our concern and focus is really on the one side to increase our response to Venezuelans, and the other to keep away from the political controversy and political divisions which are characteristic to the crisis in Venezuela.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Trump says U.S. military intervention in Venezuela ‘an option;’ Russia objects

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido and his wife Fabiana Rosales gesture during a rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas, Venezuela February 2, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said military intervention in Venezuela was “an option” as Western nations boost pressure on socialist leader Nicolas Maduro to step down, while the troubled OPEC nation’s ally Russia warned against “destructive meddling.”

The United States, Canada, and several Latin American countries have disavowed Maduro over his disputed re-election last year and recognized self-proclaimed President Juan Guaido as the country’s rightful leader.

Trump said U.S. military intervention was under consideration in an interview with CBS aired on Sunday.

“Certainly, it’s something that’s on the – it’s an option,” Trump said, adding that Maduro requested a meeting months ago.

“I’ve turned it down because we’re very far along in the process,” he said in a “Face the Nation” interview. “So, I think the process is playing out.”

The Trump administration last week issued crippling sanctions on Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, a key source of revenue for the country, which is experiencing medicine shortages and malnutrition.

Maduro, who has overseen an economic collapse and the exodus of millions of Venezuelans, maintains the backing of Russia, China and Turkey, and the critical support of the military.

Russia, a major creditor to Venezuela in recent years, urged restraint.

“The international community’s goal should be to help (Venezuela), without destructive meddling from beyond its borders,” Alexander Shchetinin, head of the Latin America department at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, told Interfax.

France and Austria said they would recognize Guaido if Maduro did not respond to the European Union’s call for a free and fair presidential election by Sunday night.

“We don’t accept ultimatums from anyone,” Maduro said in a defiant interview with Spanish television channel La Sexta carried out last week and broadcast on Sunday.

“I refuse to call for elections now – there will be elections in 2024. We don’t care what Europe says.”

EMBOLDENED OPPOSITION

The 35-year-old Guaido, head of the country’s National Assembly, has breathed new life into a previously fractured and weary opposition. Tens of thousands of people thronged the streets of various Venezuelan cities on Saturday to protest Maduro’s government.

Guaido allies plan to take a large quantity of food and medicine donated by the United States, multilateral organizations and non-profit groups across the Colombian border into the Venezuelan state of Tachira this week, according to a person directly involved in the effort.

The group has not yet determined which border point it will cross, said the person, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.

It is unclear whether Maduro’s government, which denies the country is suffering a humanitarian crisis, will let any foreign aid through.

The embattled president on Sunday promised peace for Venezuela without specifically responding to Trump.

“In Venezuela, there will be peace, and we will guarantee this peace with the civil-military union,” he told state television, in the company of khaki and black-clad soldiers who were earlier shown carrying guns and jumping from helicopters into the sea.

Maduro has overseen several such military drills since Guaido declared himself president to display he has the backing of the military, and that Venezuela’s armed forces are ready to defend the country.

Air Force General Francisco Yanez disavowed Maduro in a video this weekend, calling on members of the military to defect. But there were no signs the armed forces were turning against Maduro.

Venezuela has as many as 2,000 generals, according to unofficial estimates, many of whom do not command troops and whose defection would not necessarily weaken the ruling socialists.

The police have also fallen in line with Maduro.

A special forces unit called FAES led home raids following unrest associated with opposition protests in January, killing as many as 10 people in a single operation in a hillside slum of Caracas.

Venezuela’s ambassador to Iraq, Jonathan Velasco, became the latest official to recognize opposition leader Guaido this weekend.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)

Major European nations recognize Guaido as Venezuela president

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, January 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

By Jose Elas Rodriguez and Sudip Kar-Gupta

MADRID/PARIS (Reuters) – Ten European nations joined the United States in recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

France, Spain, Germany, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands’ coordinated move came after the expiry of an eight-day ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election.

The Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied them and said European rulers are sycophantically following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has divided international powers and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

Trump immediately recognized him but European Union countries were more hesitant.

Russia and China, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro in an extension of their geopolitical tussle with the United States.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, urging fair elections and humanitarian aid.

In response, Maduro accused “cowardly” Spain of taking a “malign” decision. “If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, replaced former president Hugo Chavez in 2013 after his death from cancer. But he has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging an “economic war” on Venezuela and harboring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s oil reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC REGIME”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

A draft EU statement said the 28-member bloc would “acknowledge” Guaido as interim president, but formal recognition was a prerogative of individual states.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced London was recognizing Guaido.

Russia accused Europe of meddling.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimize an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Caracas pays both Russian and Chinese loans with oil.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals with a good chance of winning were barred, while food handouts and other subsidies to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which makes up half of the ruling coalition, dissents from the European stance, saying it would not recognize self-appointed leaders.

But its governing partner, the League, disagrees.

Guaido told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera that he would do everything possible to secure Italian support.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.”

Italy’s SkyTG24 channel quoted Maduro as appealing to the Pope to help dialogue ahead of what he hoped would be a “peace conference” led by Mexico and others on Feb. 7. Conscious of the collapse of a past Vatican mediation bid, foes say Maduro uses dialogue to play for time and regroup when on the back foot.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Raissa Kasolowsky)

EU parliament recognizes Guaido as Venezuelan interim president

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido attends a meeting with supporters to present a government plan of the opposition in Caracas, Venezuela January 31, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Parliament recognized Venezuela’s self-declared interim president Juan Guaido as de facto head of state on Thursday, heightening international pressure on the OPEC member’s socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

EU lawmakers voted 439 in favor to 104 against, with 88 abstentions, at a special session in Brussels to recognize Venezuelan congress head Guaido as interim leader.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro sits between National Constituent Assembly (ANC) President Diosdado Cabello (L) and National Electoral Council (CNE) President Tibisay Lucena during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

In a statement with the non-binding vote, the parliament urged the bloc’s 28 governments to follow suit and consider Guaido “the only legitimate interim president” until there were “new free, transparent and credible presidential elections”.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who spoke to Guaido on Wednesday and wants further EU sanctions on Venezuelan officials, urged counterparts to embrace the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s National Assembly.

“Parliament has spoken. For us, Mr. Guaido is the president of Venezuela and we do hope that the European Union will find a united position on this,” he told reporters on arrival at a two-day meeting of EU foreign ministers in Bucharest.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said he was ready to join a common position on Venezuela if the bloc could agree what next steps to take.

Though accusing Maduro of stifling democracy, the European Union is nervous at the precedent of a self-declaration, so has been reluctant to follow the United States and most Latin American nations with immediate recognition of Guaido.

Britain, France, Germany and Spain said on Saturday, however, that they would recognize Guaido unless Maduro called elections within eight days. But the EU as a whole has not set a time limit in its call for a new presidential vote.

Maduro has dismissed the demands as an unacceptable ultimatum from the corrupt elite of spent colonial powers.

“The leaders of Europe are sycophants, kneeling behind the policies of Donald Trump,” he said at the weekend.

The European Parliament has no foreign policy powers but sees itself as a champion of human rights.

“Those who are demonstrating today in the streets of Venezuela are not Europeans, but they fight for the same values for which we fight,” Spanish center-right EU lawmaker Esteban Gonzalez Pons said in a statement.

As Venezuela has sunk into economic and political crisis that has brought mass emigration and hyperinflation, the EU imposed an arms embargo and sanctions on officials to decry what it views as rights violations and the rupture of democracy.

On Thursday, the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists said seven foreign journalists were detained in Venezuela, including French and Spanish reporters. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for their release.

(Additional reporting by Clare Roth; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)