February 4, 2019 / 10:40 AM / 8 months ago

UPDATE 5-Many European nations recognise Guaido as Venezuelan president

* Coordinated move comes after election ultimatum

* Opposition head declared himself interim president

* Major EU nations join Trump’s stance against Maduro

* Russia accuses EU of foreign meddling, Italy divided (Adds Estonia, edits)

By Gabriela Baczynska and Jose Elías Rodríguez

BRUSSELS/MADRID, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Major European nations joined the United States in recognising opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president on Monday, heightening a global showdown over Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule.

The European Union members’ coordinated move followed the expiry of an ultimatum for Maduro to call a new election and aligned them with Washington against Russia and China.

The sitting Venezuelan leader, accused of running the OPEC nation of 30 million people like a dictatorship and wrecking its economy, has defied European heads of state and called them sycophants for following President Donald Trump.

Guaido, who leads the National Assembly, declared himself caretaker leader last month in a move that has fed into a global geopolitical divide and brought Venezuelans onto the streets.

“From today, we will spare no effort in helping all Venezuelans achieve freedom, prosperity and harmony,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said, recognising Guaido.

Other EU nations echoing that were: Austria, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden.

In response, Caracas said it would revise relations with Europe. Maduro singled out “cowardly” Spain.

“If one day there is a coup, if one day there is a gringo military intervention, your hands will be stained with blood, Mr. Pedro Sanchez,” he said in a speech.

Maduro, 56, a former union leader, bus driver and foreign minister, has presided over an economic collapse and exodus of 3 million Venezuelans.

He accuses Washington of waging “economic war” on Venezuela and harbouring coup pretensions aimed at gaining control over its oil. Venezuela’s reserves are the largest in the world but production has plunged under Maduro.

“ILLEGITIMATE, KLEPTOCRATIC MADURO”

Critics say incompetent policies and corruption have impoverished the once-wealthy nation while dissent has been brutally crushed.

“The oppression of the illegitimate, kleptocratic Maduro regime must end,” said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Moscow and Beijing, which have poured billions of dollars of investment and loans into Venezuela, are supporting Maduro and warning against foreign intervention.

“Imposing some kind of decisions or trying to legitimise an attempt to usurp power is both direct and indirect interference,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Maduro won re-election last year, but critics say the vote was a sham. Two opposition rivals were barred, while food handouts to hungry Venezuelans were linked with political support.

Italy, whose coalition government is divided over Venezuela, dissented from other European powers and blocked a joint statement saying individual nations had the prerogative to recognise Guaido. Italy’s 5-Star Movement says it cannot recognise self-appointed leaders.

Ireland shared that reluctance and declined to recognise Guaido specifically, though it did back the EU stance of calling for a fair election.

In addition to European pressure, a bloc of Latin American nations plus Canada were to meet on Monday seeking to maintain pressure on Maduro.

“All these shameless people are clinging to power,” said Luis, a 45-year-old Venezuelan outside the consulate in Madrid. “Let them hold elections so they see they won’t get even 10 percent of the votes.” (Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Guy Faulconbridge and Mike Holden in London; Jose Elias Rodriguez in Madrid; Andrew Osborn and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Andrei Khalip in Lisbon; Steve Scherer in Rome; Alissa de Carbonnel and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Sarah Marsh in Caracas Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Raissa Kasolowsky and Toby Chopra)

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