United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is warning the situation in Venezuela could descend into “disaster” if the country’s main political rivals fail to reach an agreement.

The crisis in the South American country escalated Wednesday after President Nicolas Maduro announced he was ending diplomatic relations with the United States, in response to President Donald Trump’s announcement that he was officially recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim leader.

Guaido, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, declared himself interim president during a day of mass demonstrations.

Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-i
Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-run congress who declared himself interim president of Venezuela until elections can be called, during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro step down.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos Thursday, Guterres said the United Nations hopes “dialogue can be possible, and that we avoid an escalation that would lead to the kind of conflict that would be a disaster” for the people of Venezuela and the region.


Maduro has ordered all personnel at the U.S. Embassy to leave the country within 72 hours. But U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defiantly said Maduro no longer has the authority to do so.

Trump bluntly warned Maduro that “all options are on the table” if there is not a peaceful transition to democracy in the South American country.

President Donald Trump, center, at the during a healthcare roundtable in the
President Donald Trump, center, at the during a healthcare roundtable in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019, in Washington.

More sanctions possible

White House officials emphasized that Trump is not ruling out any response, such as a naval blockade or other military responses, if Maduro unleashes violence against protesters or takes action against Guaido.

The most immediate action by Washington likely will be enhanced sanctions against members of Maduro’s government.

“In our sanctions, we’ve barely scratched the surface on what actions the United States can take,” said a senior administration official.

The Trump administration also is likely to impose new sanctions on Venezuela’s oil sector if the political situation in Caracas deteriorates this week.

In addition, Washington is directly applying pressure on Maduro to give up the presidency as he faces mounting global criticism following his reelection last year that was widely considered illegitimate.

Several nations have joined the U.S. in recognizing Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president, including Canada and 11 of the 14 members of the newly formed Lima Group of Latin nations, among them Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Peru.

Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himsel
Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela’s opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of the nation until elections can be held during a rally demanding President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2019.

Warnings from Russia and China

But officials in Russia, one of Venezuela’s biggest allies, reacted with anger Thursday at the United States and other Western nations for backing Guaido, accusing them of interfering in its internal affairs. Russia’s Foreign Ministry warned the United States against any military intervention, saying such a move would have “catastrophic” consequences.

China urged the United States to stay out of the crisis. Beijing and Moscow have extensive economic interests, having loaned Caracas billions of dollars.

Bolivia, Cuba, Iran and Syria have also issued statements throwing their support for President Maduro.

The three member nations of the Lima Group that have not supported Guaido are Guyana, Saint Lucia and Mexico.

“From a constitutional, humanitarian, and democratic perspective — and according to international law — there was no option left for the United States and the international community but to recognize Juan Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela,” Moises Rendon, associate director and associate fellow of the CSIS Americas Program, told VOA.

Trump’s recognition of Guaido as Venezuela’s president is a “big and courageous move,” tweeted Dany Bahar, a Venezuelan economist and scholar at the Brookings Institution.

The U.S. action, according to Bahar, opens the door for the Venezuelan opposition to have an ambassador recognized by Washington and deal with the country’s bondholders.

Venezuela and its state-owned oil company, PDVSA, are estimated to owe $7 billion on a combined trade debt of about $60 billion. The country’s oil-based economy, which is wracked by hyperinflation, has collapsed.

Police lined streets and bridges in Caracas, as opposition protesters threw objects at them and chanted “Get out Maduro” and other slogans.

In the middle-class neighborhood of El Paraiso, National Guard troops launched tear gas at protesters who said they were angry over rising inflation, a shortage of basic goods and a migration crisis that has divided families.

Counter-protests also have been organized by the Venezuelan government, which has accused the opposition of provoking violence.

Wednesday’s protests coincide with the 61st anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew military dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.

The anti-government protests are a crucial test for Guaido, the newly installed leader of Congress. Guaido and his followers hope to get the poor and the military to shift loyalties to their opposition movement.

Any government change, however, depends on the allegiance of the armed forces, which have supported Maduro through two waves of street protests and an ongoing deconstruction of democratic institutions.

Guaido has called on the military to repudiate Maduro and promised amnesty to those who help work toward restoring democracy.

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