By Matt Spetalnick and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration ratcheted up pressure on Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday, announcing U.S. recognition of the country's opposition leader as interim president and signaling potential new sanctions against its vital oil sector.
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With street protests against Maduro underway across Venezuela, Trump said the United States recognized Juan Guaido, head of the opposition-controlled Congress, as the country's leader and called socialist President Nicolas Maduro's government "illegitimate."
"I will continue to use the full weight of United States economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of Venezuelan democracy," Trump said in a statement, encouraging other governments in the Western Hemisphere to also recognize Guaido.
The administration had been waiting to issue its announcement after Guaido had been sworn in as the country's temporary president on Wednesday, people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Venezuelan opposition sympathizers had been urging Guaido to assume the presidency since Maduro was inaugurated to a second term on Jan. 10 following a widely boycotted election last year that the United States and many other foreign governments described as a fraudulent.
Guaido, a newcomer on the national scene who was elected to head Congress on Jan. 5, had said earlier he was willing to replace Maduro if he had the support of the military, with the aim of then calling for free elections.
U.S. officials in recent days had stated openly that Maduro no longer had a legitimate claim on power.
The sources acknowledged that formal recognition of Guaido would be complicated by questions of how to deal with Venezuela's U.S.-based diplomats. Such a move could also backfire if Maduro took action to prevent Guaido from being sworn in or used it as a pretext to detain him again.
Adding to pressure on Maduro, multiple sources said the Trump administration could impose new U.S. sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil sector as soon as this week if the political situation there deteriorates further.
U.S. officials are considering a range of potential measures, including restricting U.S. imports of Venezuelan oil or even a full ban, to punish Maduro's government but no final decisions have been made as Washington closely watches the street protests unfolding in the country, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Two other sources briefed on the matter said the U.S. administration had privately informed U.S. energy companies of its deliberations.
(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Jarrett Renshaw; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Tom Brown)