Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro begins new term as ‘illegitimate’ president

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro began a new six-year term Thursday more isolated than ever, with his enemies dubbing him Latin America’s latest “dictator” and once-reliable allies shunning him on the international stage.

Spurned by Venezuela’s opposition-controlled congress, which usually swears in presidents, Maduro, 56, took his oath of office before the Supreme Court. At the same time, in Washington, D.C., 19 nations of the Organization of American States voted “not to recognize the legitimacy” of Maduro’s new term.

In a remarkable shift, Haiti and several other Caribbean nations bucked their longtime ally and oil benefactor to join the likes of the United States, Colombia and Perú in condemning Maduro. It marked the first time Haiti had voted with Washington against Venezuela after years of trying to remain neutral and abstaining from previous resolutions.

“Historically, Haiti, like much of the Caribbean, has undermined U.S. efforts to defend Venezuela’s crumbling democracy,” said Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for South America during the Obama administration. “Venezuela’s government is now officially recognized as a dictatorship, which rules over the wreckage of a once prosperous country.”

“We commend Haiti for taking a stance in support of democracy in the hemisphere,” said National Security Council Spokesperson Garrett Marquis. “The United States and history will remember those who stood on the right side of freedom for the Venezuelan people.”

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Even so, Mexico — once a steadfast supporter of U.S. positions before Andrés Manuel López Obrador took power last month — abstained from Thursday’s vote.

The Haitian rebuke comes after then-acting Secretary of State John Sullivan and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla), met with Haiti President Jovenel Moïse in April and demanded his support.

Carlos Trujillo, the U.S. ambassador to the OAS, said the vote was a “critical test” for leaders of the region to help preserve “the little that remains of democracy in Venezuela and for the credibility of the OAS.”

Venezuela’s electoral body says Maduro won the May 20 snap election with 68 percent of the vote and amid a boycott by major opposition parties. Electoral observers, and many in the international community, claimed the vote was flawed, as the government sidelined viable opponents and political parties and relied on a web of coercion to sway the vote.

Speaking Thursday, Maduro said Venezuela was fighting “an epic battle, singular and heroic” against those who want to destroy its “socialist revolution.”

“We will be governed by Venezuelans without the intervention of any imperial power or foreign government,” he said. “Venezuela belongs to Venezuelans.”

But he also extended an olive branch, saying he would call a meeting of regional leaders in hopes of building bridges and restoring ties. And Maduro isn’t completely alone. The government said that representatives from 50 nations were present at his swearing-in, including the presidents of Nicaragua, Bolivia and Cuba.

In a tweet, Vice President Mike Pence called Maduro’s inauguration a “sham.” The U.S. “does not recognize the illegitimate result of a stolen election,” he wrote.

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Maduro first came to power in 2013 after the death of his mentor and predecessor Hugo Chávez, and he’s led the country through some of its most tumultuous times. The once-wealthy nation is saddled with the world’s highest inflation (expected to exceed 10 million percent this year) and is struggling to keep its population fed amid collapsing oil production and widespread corruption. More than 3 million people have abandoned the country in recent years.

Amid the economic, social and political chaos, many of Maduro’s neighbors have been urging him to step aside. Last week the Lima Group — a bloc of 14 nations — said Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly was the only legitimate branch of government.

On Thursday, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó called Maduro a dictator and said the country was under the thumb of an administration “that wasn’t elected by the people.”

He also predicted that Maduro’s international isolation could have far-reaching implications.

“How is Nicolás Maduro going to appoint ambassadors to other countries or ask for loans from other countries?” he said. “Countries broke ties [with Maduro] because he stole the popular vote.”

Despite his combative tone, some in the opposition were hoping Guaidó and the National Assembly would go further, and declare themselves the leaders of a transitional government. In a statement, the Venezuelan-based polling firm Meganalisis called congress’ unwillingness to take that step a “historic mistake” and “cowardly.”

But it was also an act of self-preservation. The Maduro administration has jailed politicians that have defied it in the past, and likely wouldn’t hesitate in dissolving an already hamstrung and diminished congress.

Despite the international condemnations, Maduro still seems to have the support of the one group that matters most: the military. Amid reports and rumors of grumblings, dissension and coup plots in the ranks, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López swore his allegiance — and that of the five branches of the military — to Maduro.

“We accept, without hesitation, your sole command to lead this country over the next six years,” he said. “We recognize [you] as our Commander in Chief.”

Miami Herald Reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report