U.S. backing of Venezuelan opposition comes with risks

Washington — It has long been a priority of President Donald Trump’s administration to pressure Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to step down. But CBS News senior White House correspondent Major Garrett reports the White House’s decision to formally back opposition leader Juan Guaido on Wednesday comes with risks, and could lead to more bloodshed and repression.

The chaos on the ground has continued unabated. Seven people were killed on Wednesday alone amid massive protests demanding Maduro step down. Security forces used tear gas and water cannon against demonstrators.

Sources tell CBS News that Guaido swore himself in as interim president on Wednesday, and is laying low in Caracas. His whereabouts could not be confirmed on Thursday morning, but a close supporter denied in tweet reports that he had gone into hiding in the Colombian Embassy in Caracas.

Guaido, 35, is the head of Venezuela’s legislature, called the National Assembly — the last remaining democratic institution in the country.On Twitter, he thanked Mr. Trump for backing “the will of the Venezuelan people.”

Maduro has spent more than five years, since he first won the presidency, cementing his power by filling Venezuela’s courts with allies, and then through them, granting himself more power in the executive branch.

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The U.S. and most democratic world powers see Maduro as a dictator, and his recent re-election as a sham. To ramp up pressure, the U.S. is considering sanctions on Venezuela’s crude oil exports.

But Maduro does still have major supporters, including China, and Russia and America’s NATO ally Turkey, which have labeled Guaido’s U.S.-endorsed attempt to take over leadership of the country a coup.

It’s unclear whether Maduro still has the support of his military — or at least a majority of its commanders.

Venezuela is in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in the hemisphere . Food and medicine are already in short supply and violence is rampant.

Maduro says the U.S. has 72 hours to get its embassy personnel out of Venezuela, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that order will be ignored.

A senior administration official told CBS News on Wednesday that the U.S. government hopes Maduro will seek an “exit route” and take part in a peaceful transition of power. But the official added that “all options are on the table” for the administration to respond if Maduro and “his cronies” organize a violent crackdown against demonstrators and harm national assembly members.

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