Venezuela's Maduro defends rule as legitimate

The new president of Venezuela's National Assembly Juan Guaido declares Nicolas Maduro's presidency illegitimate in opening a new session of the opposition-controlled legislature

Christian Zerpa, who presided over the Electoral Council of Venezuela's Supreme Court (TSJ), appeared in Orlando, Florida with his wife and daughter Sunday, conceding an interview to right-wing news agency El Venezolano TV Miami (EVTV).

Zerpa's defection from the South American nation in crisis comes amid growing global pressure on Maduro over his new term due to countries around the world dismissing a broadly boycotted 2018 election vote as a sham.

The Supreme Court confirmed in a statement that he had fled, referring to him as a former magistrate and adding it opened an investigation of him in November over accusations of sexual harassment by women in his office.

The new president of Venezuela's opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaido, was sworn in last week.

The 13 remaining countries in the Lima Group that signed Friday's statement, which include Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia, called Maduro's new term "illegitimate" and urged him to hand power over to the National Assembly until democratic elections can be held. The national Assembly was the only "democratically elected Institution" in Venezuela, said U.S. state Department spokesman Robert Palladino.

"I've made a decision to leave Venezuela to disavow the government of Nicolas Maduro", Zerpa said in an interview with EVTV, which is broadcast over cable and the internet.

A once wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in the throes of a historic crisis after two decades of socialist rule.

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For many years Zerpa was an ally of Maduro on the Supreme Court, which backed the ruling Socialist Party in every major legal dispute since Maduro's 2013 election.

Maduro's Socialist Party "gradually but steadily" co-opted the Supreme Court and "turned it into an appendage of the executive branch", according to the International Commission of Jurists.

Venezuelan officials accuse the coalition of taking orders directly from U.S. President Donald Trump, who they frequently accuse of spearheading an economic war against Venezuela.

Dogged by hyperinflation that has seen Venezuela's currency drop in value by 99.9%, a government refusing to provide citizens with the passports they need to leave, and an ongoing desperation that has seen an exodus of some 2.3 million people in the past five years, the South American continent is facing a humanitarian crisis in which no country can be devoid of participation.

The United States, the European Union and a grouping of countries from the Western Hemisphere called the Lima Group have refused to recognize the election.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges, who lives in exile fearing for his safety, sent a letter Monday to the leaders of Latin American nations.

"The inhuman arrogance of this dictatorship led by Nicolas Maduro personally challenges the heads of state of the region", Borges said.

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