Venezuelan bishops back opposition marches, after calling Maduro 'illegitimate'

People listen to Venezuelas National Assembly head Juan Guaido out of frame during an opposition rally against Nicolas Maduro in Caracas Jan 23 2019 Credit Federico Parra AFP Getty Images C People listen to Venezuela's National Assembly head Juan Guaido (out of frame) during an opposition rally against Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Jan. 23, 2019. | Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images.

The bishops of Venezuela have voiced support for peaceful opposition demonstrations across the country Wednesday. At one of these marches in Caracas, opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president.

Guaido is head of the National Assembly, the opposition-controlled legislature. He pledged a transitional government and free elections.

Soon afterwards US president Donald Trump said he recognized Guaido as president, saying the National Assembly is the sole "legitimate branch of government" in Venezuela and that Nicolas Maduro's presidency is "illegitimate". Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica have also reportedly recognized Guaido.

Since Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 2013, the country has been marred by violence and social upheaval. Under the socialist government, the country has seen severe shortages and hyperinflation, and millions have emigrated.

Earlier this month, the bishops called illegitimate Maduro's swearing in for a second term as president. Maduro won a May 2018 presidential election which was boycotted by the opposition and has been rejected by much of the international community.

The Jan. 23 marches were convoked by the National Assembly, which the Venezuelan bishops' conference's Justice and Peace Commission said was "elected by the free and democratic vote of the Venezuelan people" and "is currently the sole organ of public authority with the legitimacy to exercise its powers with sovereignty."

The commission also demanded that "the diverse bodies of state security respect the citizens demonstrating today," citing their right to be free from "violent repression, arbitrary detentions, cruel treatment, and the use of firearms and toxic substances to control peaceful demonstrations."

In addition, the bishops' Justice and Peace Commission urged "the Catholic people and men and women of good will to pray for Venezuela at this time, that the constitutional order is restored and we achieve a spiritually and materially prosperous nation."

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in support of the opposition today. Security forces have met some of the protesters with tear gas.

In Maturin, at least 700 opposition supporters who marched were trapped in the cathedral for several hours, besieged by the Venezuelan Army.

Numerous bishops are participating in the opposition marches, among them Luis Enrique Rojas Ruiz, Auxiliary Bishop of Mérida; Mario del Valle Moronta Rodriguez of San Cristóbal; Víctor Hugo Basabe of San Felipe; and Ulises Antionio Gutiérrez Reyes of Ciudad Bolívar.

Supporters of the Maduro government are holding counter-protests.

The opposition marches were called by the National Assembly to mark the anniversary of the 1958 coup which overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.

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Ahead of the opposition marches, the Venezuelan bishops' conference called them "a sign of hope, something new that is beginning to be generated in our country: necessary changes for the integral human development of each person and of all persons, but always in democracy and in accord with the National Constitution."

"These marches are not the end of the road, but a sign of the future in process which we must construct among us all, without exception," the bishops said in a statement titled "23 January 1958: A historic milestone for Venezuelan democracy."

The bishops called the 1958 coup "an inspiring sign of the triumph of social rationality before the abuse of power; of the unity of the people who were weak before the dismantling of a regime of abuses, of corruption, and of repression, which concealed within itself all the evils which an authoritarian government can have."

Since then, the Venezuelan republic developed a "democratic conscience", which valued the separation of powers, peaceful transitions of government, and decentralization, the bishops said.

"Lamentably, the deterioration of the democratic life by factors known to all opened the doors to the introduction of a government regime in which many placed their hopes, but which, in the end, has been contrary to the principles of social ethics and to respect for human dignity."

They said the Jan. 23 marches remember "that event which was significant in the struggle of civilization before barbarism. We do this remaining aware of the suffering to which the Venezuelan people have been subjected by government action."

The bishops also said that "the majority of the people ask for a change of direction which passes through a period of transition until new national authorities are elected."

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On Jan. 9, the bishops had said Maduro's claim to be initiating a new term "opens the door to the nonrecognition of the government, since it lacks democratic support in justice and law."

A Jan. 21 rebellion by 27 members of the National Guard in Caracas was quickly suppressed.

Venezuela's socialist government is widely blamed for the country's crisis. Since 2003, price controls on some 160 products, including cooking oil, soap and flour, have meant that while they are affordable, they fly off store shelves only to be resold on the black market at much higher rates.

Poor economic policies, including strict price controls, coupled with high inflation rates, have resulted in a severe lack of basic necessities such as toilet paper, milk, flour, diapers and medicines.

An estimated 3 million people have fled the country since 2014.

Inflation in Venezuela in 2018 was estimated by the National Assembly at 1.3 million percent.

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