A group of major European nations recognized Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president on Monday, urging him to hold free and fair elections.
The coordinated move came after President Nicolas Maduro ignored a demand set by some EU nations to call snap elections by the end of Sunday. Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Germany were among the European nations to recognize Guaido’s legitimacy.
“We will dedicate all our efforts to achieve peace, freedom and harmony of the Venezuelan people,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said. He called on Guaido to hold “free, democratic presidential elections, with guarantees and without exclusions.”
British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said on Twitter that the UK would recognize Guaido as interim president “until credible elections can be held.” A spokesman for UK Prime Minister Theresa May added that sanctions against Venezuela were also on the table, underlining that the Maduro regime must end.
Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Estonia and Sweden also said they would recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president.
Speaking to reporters outside the National Assembly in Caracas on Monday, Guaido said the recognition he has received from some EU countries was meaningful for all Venezuelans.
“This recognition from more than 20 countries is a recognition for all you Venezuelans who never stopped fighting and we will never stop doing it until we achieve our democracy and freedom in Venezuela,” said Guaido.
Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry denounced the groundswell of support for Guaido, suggesting that European governments were acting as part of a US-led effort to topple Maduro.
“The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela categorically rejects decision adopted by some European governments, where they officially fold into this strategy led by the US administration to topple the legitimate government of President Nicolas Maduro – who the people of Venezuela elected in a sovereign, free and democratic way,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Maduro rejected the “ultimatum” set by EU leaders, asserting that previous elections that ushered him into another six-year term were fair. “We don’t accept ultimatums from anyone,” Maduro said in an interview with Spanish TV network LaSexta on Sunday.
It was not clear why the EU as a whole did not recognize Guaido. Speaking in Brussels on Monday, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that while the EU never recognized Venezuela’s elections last year as legitimate, the decision to recognize a head of state was up to individual EU members alone.
A ‘political and peaceful process’
EU leaders have hailed a newly formed “international contact group,” which will meet in Montevideo, Uruguay, on Thursday to discuss a “political and peaceful process” to ending the Venezuela crisis.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday that France supported the group of EU and Latin American countries and their role in Venezuela’s transition period, after recognizing Guaido as “acting President” in a tweet.
Speaking on France Inter radio on Monday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the decision to recognize Guaido was “not foreign meddling,” as Russia, one of Maduro’s key allies, has suggested.
Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned Europe’s interference in the oil-rich country on Monday, calling it an attempt to “legitimize the usurped authority.”
Russia and China, which have together invested billions of dollars into Venezuela, have continued to back Maduro.
China said on Monday that, no matter the outcome of the current political crisis, cooperation with Venezuela would not be damaged.
Since declaring himself acting president on January 23 – invoking a constitutional rule to open a rare challenge to Maduro’s presidency – Guaido’s leadership had already been recognized by Canada, the United States, Australia, and a number of Latin American countries.
On Monday, Canada hosted a meeting of the Lima Group regional bloc to discuss how the international community can further aid the people of Venezuela, including through immediate humanitarian assistance.
Opening a session in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a contribution of 53 million Canadian dollars ($40.4 million) in aid to Venezuela.
The group also issued a statement welcoming Venezuela’s interim government as a full member, and called on the country’s armed forces to show loyalty to Guaido, according to Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland.
Earlier in the day, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that Germany had earmarked €5 million ($5.72 million) worth of assistance for Venezuela. Later on Monday, Guaido said that Germany has pledged €6 million ($6.86 million.)
USAID has already begun packaging pallets of foodstuffs following national security adviser John Bolton’s announcement last week that it would send humanitarian aid.
Guaido has said that humanitarian aid will begin to flow into Venezuela in the coming days, defying Maduro’s repeated refusal of assistance in the face of food and medicine shortages. He outlined the move as part of a plan to push the military into cooperating with the opposition.
Focusing on the need for aid, Guaido told reporters: “This is an emergency, it’s a crisis. We are announcing this immediately and making the determination for this to enter the country and for it to be distributed efficiently and where it is most needed.”
Appealing to the conscience of Venezuela’s military to help get humanitarian aid into the country, Guaido said on Twitter: “Everything is ready. The question here is to all military officers: Soldier, are you going to deny your family humanitarian aid? I appeal once again to your conscience; this aid is to save lives.”
In addition to focusing on aid, Guaido also said his team would focus on demanding a freeze on Venezuelan assets in the EU.
Maduro has repeatedly denied that Venezuela is in a crisis, suggesting aid efforts were part of an international plan to destabilize his socialist regime. During Maduro’s tenure as president, the once-wealthy oil nation has descended into economic collapse and a humanitarian crisis.
On Monday, Guaido paid his respects to the victims of the recent protests in Caracas, saying 69 people had been killed so far this year in the country for political reasons.
He also said there is no possibility of a civil war. “This is a farce, which Maduro wants to try to sell.”
Claudia Rebaza, Arnaud Siad and Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report.