The Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it would no longer recognize Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate president of Venezuela, instead offering its formal support for opposition leader Juan Guaido, who was elected leader of the Venezuelan Congress earlier this month.
The 35-year-old Guaido has become a figurehead for anti-Maduro protests since the Venezuelan president was inaugurated to a second term after a widely disputed election. While the body that Guaido is in charge of — the opposition-controlled National Assembly — holds little practical power, it is widely viewed internationally as a symbol of democracy.
Guaido declared himself president on Wednesday amid huge opposition street protests that left at least one person dead by midday. Recognition from the United States may well bolster his case — though it will likely present some considerable complications to the U.S.-Venezuela relationship.
David Bosco, an associate professor at Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies, said the U.S. decision to recognize Guaido as the legitimate president is an unusual move that some legal scholars would view as potentially “dicey.”
“Governments for the most part try to avoid doing this kind of thing,” Bosco said. “States just try to recognize whoever claims to be the government and whoever has effective control of the country.”
There are exceptions — though they are generally temporary and take place in instances of a conflict or a military coup. The Taliban was recognized as the legitimate government of Afghanistan only by a few countries, and a number of states refused to recognize a new government installed after a military coup in Haiti in 1991.
“By far the longest nonrecognition of a government that had control of a country was the case of Communist China,” Bosco added. “From the time that the nationalist regime collapsed in China until the early 1970s, the U.S. recognized the government in Taiwan as the legitimate government of all China.”
Two of the most recent cases took place in the midst of a civil war. In 2011, for example, the United States recognized the National Transitional Council in Libya as the legitimate government, despite the fact that forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi were still in charge of much of the country. A similar situation took place in 2014, when Syrian opposition groups were granted diplomatic representation in the United States.
Recognizing Guaido as president would have a significant effect on how U.S. officials handle their relationship with their Venezuelan counterparts. In particular, it may mean that Venezuela’s diplomatic presence in Washington would need to change, as the accredited diplomats would no longer represent the recognized government. “Presumably you’d then have the opposition able to designate people,” Bosco said.
There could also be significant knock-on economic effects for both U.S. and Venezuelan interests. The United States could seize assets belonging to the Venezuelan state in the country and turn them over to forces loyal to Guaido, for example.
“If the U.S. government recognizes Juan Guaido as president, U.S. courts would see his government as the only one that can manage assets,” Francisco Rodriguez, chief economist at the New York-based Torino Capital investment firm, told The Washington Post earlier this month. “A parallel government could have significant economic power.”
There will also be questions raised about what happens to Venezuelan diplomats accredited with the United Nations. Though some other countries have also recognized Guaido as interim president, Maduro retains the support of key U.N. members such as Russia and China.
It is unclear what effect U.S. recognition of Guaido could have on his standing in Venezuela — some analysts have expressed worry that it may embolden Maduro to arrest him or lead to a split in control of the country. In 2011, ahead of U.S. recognition to Libya’s National Transitional Council, Harold Koh, then-legal-adviser to the State Department, told Congress that recognition can sometimes absolve governments of the responsibility of governing.
“As a general rule, we are reluctant to recognize entities that do not control entire countries because then they are responsible for parts of the country that they don’t control,” he said. “And we are reluctant to derecognize leaders who still control parts of the country because then you’re absolving them of responsibility in the areas that they do control.”