CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's opposition-controlled congress has declared President Nicolas Maduro "illegitimate," moving a step closer to implementing a plan to challenge the socialist leader by declaring a caretaker government and calling early elections.
A resolution adopted Tuesday accuses Maduro of "usurping" power and says his administration's acts will no longer carry legal authority. Another resolution seeks to pry the military's loyalty away from Maduro by offering protection to members of the armed forces who support any transitional government.
"This is a historic accord," said National Assembly President Juan Guaido, who in less than two weeks on the job has managed to revitalize the often out-maneuvered opposition.
However, though weakened by Venezuela's economic collapse, Maduro so far has retained the support of the generals and other government institutions, including the courts, which previously ruled actions by the National Assembly invalid.
In invoking an article of the constitution about the transfer of power, lawmakers promised to hold early elections if and when Maduro steps aside, immediately drawing support from foreign capitals.
In Washington, Sen. Marco Rubio, an influential voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America, said it was time for the Trump administration to recognize Guaido as interim president — a title that Guaido has not claimed so far.
Vice President Mike Pence called Guaido and said the U.S. strongly supports his decision to "declare the country's presidency vacant."
Tensions in the oil-rich nation have been rising since Maduro took the oath of office Jan. 10 to begin a second, six-year term that many foreign governments considered illegitimate because most popular opposition parties were banned from running in the May presidential election and leading opposition politicians were jailed or driven into exile.
Guaido said last week that he is ready to step into the presidency temporarily and call for new elections, but only if he sees support from the military and common Venezuelans in nationwide street demonstrations set for later this month.
The resolution adopted Tuesday laying out a roadmap for a political transition led by the National Assembly came amid a frenzy of legislative activity. Among other measures approved was the one aimed at weakening military support for the president.
Maduro has cultivated a stronghold within the military by appointing generals to powerful government posts as Venezuela collapsed into a historic economic and political crisis, creating steep challenges for the anti-Maduro politicians.
"It's not going to be simple after 20 years of repression," Guaido said about the military.
Diego Moya-Ocampos, a Venezuela analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight, said the military would be a key player behind the scenes to drive any regime change. The opposition is offering the armed forces incentives to break away rather than continue supporting Maduro, he said.
"They're laying the institutional grounds for both the military and the police in an eventual transition," Moya Ocampos said. "It gives them incentives to defect rather than to collaborate with the Maduro regime."
But so far there is little sign that support within the top ranks of the armed forces is fraying.
Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez said Tuesday that he was "worried" about attempts to subvert the constitution not by Maduro but his opponents.
"We must tell the Venezuelan people every day that the Bolivian Armed Forces deeply love the ideas of the commander Hugo Chavez," he said standing alongside Maduro, referring to the president's mentor and predecessor.
Maduro has largely ignored congress, arguing that it is outranked by a pro-government constitutional assembly. The pro-Maduro Supreme Court earlier ruled that acts of the opposition-dominated congress are invalid.
"Anyone who wants to mock the constitution and play politics, well, he'll have to face the constitution, the laws and the courts," Maduro said without mentioning Guaido. "The courts will put things in their place as always."
Congress also approved a resolution calling on dozens of foreign governments to freeze bank accounts controlled by Maduro's government to protect assets that legislators say belong to the Venezuelan people and which are being squandered through corruption and mismanagement.