President Nicolas Maduro on Wednesday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013 as the US-backed opposition claimed the legitimate mantle of leadership, and President Donald Trump promptly recognised him as Venezuela's interim president.The dramatic developments came as anti-Maduro protests drew hundreds of thousands of people into Venezuelan streets.

"Today, I am officially recognising the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as the Interim President of Venezuela," Trump said in a statement. "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 Nicolas Maduro illegitimate, and the office of the presidency therefore vacant. The people of Venezuela have courageously spoken out against Maduro and his regime and demanded freedom and the rule of law."

As the international campaign against him grew, Maduro, the anointed successor of socialist firebrand Hugo Chavez, who died in 2013, was confronting a new protagonist in the form of Guaido. Before a cheering throng, the 35-year-old industrial engineer and recently named head of the country's National Assembly, took the long-awaited step Wednesday of declaring himself interim president - in an attempt to replace Maduro as the legitimate head of state. Though stripped of its power by Maduro, the assembly is widely recognised internationally as the country's last democratic institution. Even before Guaido's announcement, he had been recognised by Brazil and the head of the Organization of American States as Venezuela's rightful leader. Now, his official declaration is set to dramatically escalate international attempts led by the United States to force Maduro from office after elections last year seen as a fraudulent power grab, even as it is set to put Guaido at high risk in a country were opposition leaders have been arrested, tortured and exiled.

Amid sharply rising tensions between Washington and Caracas, the U.S.-backed opposition here sought on Wednesday to fill the streets with protesters and spark the beginning of a sustained uprising aimed at ousting Maduro from office.

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"We will stay on the street until Venezuela is liberated!" Guaido told the crowd in Caracas.

 President Nicolas Maduro faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013. Photo / AP
President Nicolas Maduro faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013. Photo / AP

Overnight, the smaller-scale protests that began on Monday began to spread, with a throng of demonstrators in Bolivar state setting alight a statue of Chavez, the leftist firebrand who established Venezuela's socialist state and anointed Maduro as his successor before dying of cancer in 2013.

By midday Wednesday, at least one protester was reported dead.

Barely an hour after they began, Wednesday's protests were shaping up to be the country's largest in two years.

At least 43 people have been detained in protests since Monday, according to Foro Penal, a nonprofit legal firm that tracks and defends political prisoners.

The actions against Maduro took place as U.S. officials sought to undermine him. In a video, Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday called Maduro a "dictator with no legitimate claim to power" and backed the opposition protests as "a call for freedom." Coming on the heels of a series of U.S. sanctions, the move prompted Maduro late Tuesday to order a "revision" of diplomatic ties with the United States.

The freshly re-energised Venezuelan opposition, meanwhile, faced a vital test on Wednesday in its effort to unseat Maduro, who was sworn in this month for a new six-year term after elections that were internationally condemned as a fraudulent power grab. As people started to gather on a rainy Caracas morning, protests in some areas were being dispersed by security forces with tear gas. In eastern Caracas, people yelled: "Who are we? Venezuela. What do we want? Freedom."

Stripped of its power by Maduro in 2017, the assembly is nevertheless widely recognised internationally as the only democratic institution left in the country. Now, Guaido, a 35-year-old industrial engineer, is seeking to unite an opposition long plagued by mismanagement and infighting and ignite the largest wave of protests here since 2017, when hundreds of thousands took the streets. That movement was ultimately squashed after official repression led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

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Anti-government protesters cheer as Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president. Photo / AP
Anti-government protesters cheer as Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president. Photo / AP

One protester at Wednesday's demonstrations, 32-year-old accountant Ailyn Arreaza, said she woke up at dawn to come to Caracas from a suburb 18 miles to the south.

"My family motivates me, as well as my friends who left because of this. My husband is in Peru," she said. "I march for him to come back, and for many other families to come back, too."

Gabriela Aristimuno, a 40-year-old lawyer, escaped tear gas in western Caracas and quickly joined the crowd in the east.

"Fear? No, nothing. Freedom and my children are all I care about," she said. "I want everything I had before, before all this tragedy."

The official state television channel, meanwhile, showed images of pro-Maduro crowds and urged viewers to join.

"The streets belong to Chavismo," the narrator said, referring to the government's left-wing ideology and encouraging people to use that as a hashtag on Twitter. At the pro-government demonstration, people wore red caps and listened to Maduro and Chavez campaign songs. "Yesterday, there was an insolent call by the United States. Today, we have to go out to defend the revolution," said Guillermo Blanco, an employee of Venezuela's state oil company. "We don't take orders from anyone."

Turnout will probably influence the momentum of the opposition and gauge whether it has been truly reborn with new leadership and growing international support.

Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido. Photo / AP
Anti-government protesters hold their hands up during the symbolic swearing-in of Juan Guaido. Photo / AP

"Today, we will have the chance to reunite as one in all of Venezuela," Guaido tweeted Wednesday. "The eyes of the world will be on our homeland today."

Backed by Russia, China and Cuba, Maduro has ordered the arrest, torture and exile of scores of opposition politicians. One day after Maduro's swearing-in, however, Guaido openly challenged his rule, saying he would be willing to become interim president if he won the support of the military, foreign powers and the people.

Since then, thousands of desperate Venezuelans confronting record levels of hyperinflation and fast-spreading hunger and disease have been showing up in cities across the nation to hear Guaido's speeches.

"Only if the protests are massive and cross-class could they demoralise and give pause to people in the military and within the ruling party," said David Smilde, Venezuela expert and sociology professor at Tulane University.

The military's loyalty remains key to Maduro's survival. A U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post this month that Maduro's defense minister, Vladimir Padrino López, has privately told Maduro that he should step aside. And thousands of police and military rank and file have deserted their posts. But outward signs of division within the military have been limited.

Nevertheless, there are growing indications of cracks. On Monday, dozens of Venezuelan National Guard personnel stole arms from two Caracas units, kidnapped four officials, and recorded themselves in a northern slum urging people to join them in rebellion. The videos circled social media but shortly afterward, the government announced that 27 dissenting officials had been arrested.

That same day, hundreds of residents took to the streets as protests burst out in western slums across Caracas in the afternoon, continuing well past midnight.

On Tuesday night, spontaneous protests also erupted in more than 60 neighbourhoods across the capital and in interior states, many of them repressed by security forces with tear gas bombs and rubber bullets.

Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela. Photo / AP
Juan Guaido, head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, declares himself interim president of Venezuela. Photo / AP

In the state of Bolivar, protesters burned the statue of late leader Chavez, with footage of the incident going viral on social media. In a western Caracas slum, one 16-year-old was reported dead after receiving a gun shot at a demonstration, according to exiled lawmaker and doctor Jose Manuel Olivares, who received the information from the hospital that treated the boy.

The demonstrations led some observers to suggest that the poorest sectors of the capital could join the opposition's traditional upper-class base in Wednesday's protests - something that has rarely happened in the past.

"I'm tired," said Gladys Ibarra, a 40-year-old informal merchant who was protesting in a northwestern Caracas slum. "I'm tired of not having water, energy. Tired of waking up at dawn trying to find gas to cook."

The turnout is also likely to be closely watched in the United States and other nations that have been pressing for Maduro's ouster. Colombia, Brazil and Chile have already jointed the United States in offering support for Guaido and refusing to recognize Maduro.

Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States, has gone as far as recognising Guaido as Venezuela's "interim president" - a title not even Guaido has yet claimed. On Tuesday, the National Assembly named a "special representative" to the OAS. If the organization accepts the new appointment, it could further undermine Maduro's ability to represent Venezuela internationally.

The heightened diplomatic war of words between Caracas and Washington was capped on Tuesday by Pence's sharply worded video, which included passages in Spanish. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Pence additionally lashed out at Maduro and vowed that "the U.S. will not stand by as Venezuela crumbles."

"Mr. Maduro has exacerbated the country's corruption and socialist policies, accelerating its descent from one of the richest countries in the Western Hemisphere to one of the poorest and most despotic," Pence said.

Maduro responded late Tuesday, saying: "Never before has an official of such high rank gone out in the name of his government to say the Venezuelan opposition should overthrow the government."

Anti-government protesters cheer after Juan Guaido declares himself interim president. Photo / AP
Anti-government protesters cheer after Juan Guaido declares himself interim president. Photo / AP

Maduro threatened diplomatic action against the United States "within hours." As of early Wednesday, however, Venezuela had yet to announce concrete steps. The government did announce a counterdemonstration - a march for the fatherland - in which Maduro was scheduled to speak at 2 p.m. local time.

The two nations already maintain limited diplomatic relations. Although they both have operating embassies in each other's capitals, they have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010. Venezuela's lifeblood is oil, and the United States remains its largest cash buyer. But Venezuela's oil production has collapsed under Maduro. Venezuela sells about 500,000 barrels per day to the United States, or about half the volume of a decade ago.

Still, experts say it would be a risky for his government to wholly sever diplomatic relations. Such a move could prompt the Trump administration the trigger it has been looking for to take harsher steps, including freezing Venezuelan government accounts and institute its "nuclear option" against Maduro: an oil embargo that would completely cut off the U.S. market. A clean cut in diplomatic relations could also put at risk the Maduro administration's control of Citgo, the U.S.-based oil firm owned by the Venezuelan government.

Yet taking such a radical step could also help Maduro mobilize Venezuelans against a common enemy to the north.

As Venezuelans weighed whether to join the protests, many feared the pro-government security forces would deploy the same kind of violence now as they did in 2017. For many, that was too high a cost, especially after the opposition became ineffectual in the months that followed.

Yet Guaido, who was briefly detained by the intelligence police on Jan. 14, has brought a new sense of hope to that disillusioned support base. Felix Seijas, a Caracas-based political analyst, said that the outcome on Wednesday would show whether the opposition was able to "generate enough pressure" to escalate its bid to unseat Maduro.