ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- The United States ramped up its criticism of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro on Saturday with an explicit call for the formation of a new government in the country.
The State Department said in a statement that it stood behind the head of Venezuela's opposition-run congress, Juan Guaido, who said on Friday he is prepared to step into the nation's presidency temporarily to replace Maduro.
The statement was the latest in a barrage of Trump administration attacks on Maduro, whose inauguration to a new term as president on Thursday has been widely denounced as illegitimate.
"The people of Venezuela deserve to live in freedom in a democratic society governed by the rule of law," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said. "It is time to begin the orderly transition to a new government. We support the National Assembly's call for all Venezuelans to work together, peacefully, to restore constitutional government and build a better future."
"The United States government will continue to use the full weight of U.S. economic and diplomatic power to press for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela," he said in the statement, which was released in Abu Dhabi where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently traveling as part of a nine-nation tour of the Middle East. Pompeo spoke to Guaido earlier in the week shortly after the 35-year-old was elected to lead the National Assembly.
Guaido said he was willing to become interim leader when speaking to an energized crowd blocking a busy Caracas street a day after Maduro's inauguration. But he said he would need support from the public, the armed forces and the international community before trying to form a transitional government to hold new elections to replace Maduro.
The head of the Organization of American States, Secretary-General Luis Almagro, responded quickly, sending out a tweet recognizing Guaido as Venezuela's interim president.
U.S. national security adviser John Bolton then praised Guaido, although he didn't echo Almagro's step of calling him the interim president. Bolton reiterated the U.S. position that the May election that gave Maduro a second term was "not free, fair or credible" and said "we support the courageous decision" of Guaido's declaration "that Maduro does not legitimately hold the country's presidency."
Guaido asked Venezuelans to mass in a nationwide demonstration on Jan. 23, a historically important date for Venezuelans -- the day when a mass uprising overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958.
The constitution assigns the presidency to the head of the National Assembly if Maduro is illegitimate.
But the overall military so far has remained firmly behind Maduro, despite some reports of small-scale attempts at revolt.
A once wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is gripped by a growing crisis of relentless inflation, food shortages and mass migration.
Seventeen Latin American countries, the United States and Canada denounced Maduro's government as illegitimate in a measure adopted Thursday at the OAS in Washington.