More than a thousand Venezuelans rally in Doral to call for Maduro’s ouster

Hours after Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó declared himself the country’s rightful president, chants of exaltation echoed off the tall buildings surrounding Doral City Hall on Wednesday as protesters gathered by the hundreds to celebrate what they hope is the toppling of Nicolás Maduro’s regime in the South American country.

“Who are we? Venezuela!” the crowd, estimated by a city employee to be about 1,300 strong, shouted. “What do we want? Liberty!”

The grounds of Downtown Doral Park turned into a sea of red, blue and yellow, the colors of the Venezuelan flag, following Guaidó’s pronouncement and the official recognition of his presidency by the Trump administration. Several countries including Canada, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil quickly followed suit.

Maduro, who first took office in 2013, was sworn in for a new six-year term this month following elections that were widely condemned by the international community as fraudulent. As president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Guaidó leaned on a legal provision that states the Assembly leader would assume the presidency if the position were to be vacated. Guaidó called for new elections on Wednesday and encouraged prolonged protests to nudge the military-backed Maduro from power.

“Those who have usurped the symbols of power believe — their calculation is — that the pressure will ease on the streets and that we’ll grow tired,” he said. “But we will keep insisting until we have democracy and freedom.”

Protesters in Doral rallied in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of their compatriots in Venezuela, who flooded the streets of major cities this week to call for the ouster of Maduro, whom the Trump administration called a “usurper” and “illegitimate.” The opposition protests in Venezuela were considered the largest in that country since violence-plagued demonstrations in 2017.

Claudia Kahwati, 18, center, holds a Venezuelan flag during a protest in Downtown Doral Park on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. Thousands of activists gathered in Doral in support of Juan Guaidó, the president of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared himself the country’s interim president. MATIAS J. OCNER

“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 Nicolás Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant,” Trump said in a statement recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader. “The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law.”

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Auristela Sandoval, 52, left, and Dalila Arrarte, 60, cry during a protest in Downtown Doral Park on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER

Shortly after the Trump administration’s announcement, Maduro cut all diplomatic ties with the U.S., demanding that embassy staff leave the country within 72 hours.

With a Venezuelan flag hung around her neck, and modified to appear to be stained with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes, protester Sabina Contreras said her flag represented the state-sanctioned violence and death protesters in her home country have suffered in recent years and even this week. Contreras, 32, who left Venezuela in 2009, said she wouldn’t mind if Maduro met a similar fate.

“He is a dictator, and he needs to get out of Venezuela,” she said. “Dead or alive. I don’t care.”

Contreras, who worked as an attorney in Venezuela, said Wednesday offered Venezuelans one of their first glimmers of hope in a very long time.

“It’s over for Maduro,” she said. “Now we have a new president.”

Protester Sabina Contreras, right, holds up a Venezuelan flag modified to appear bloodstained and covered in bullet holes during a large rally in downtown Doral on Wednesday night to call for the ouster of President Nicolás Maduro. Opposition leader and National Assembly President Juan Guaidó declared himself the interim president on Wednesday and called for new elections. Martin Vassolo Miami Herald