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Coalition Against Venezuela’s Maduro Grew From Secret Talks

Playing a key role behind the scenes was Lima Group member Canada, whose Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to Guaido the night before Maduro's swearing-in ceremony

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Venezuela
A crowd of opposition supporters gather to listen to Venezuela's National Assembly head and the country's self-proclaimed "acting president" Juan Guaido, at Bolivar Square in Chacao, eastern Caracas, on Jan. 25, 2019. VOA

The coalition of Latin American governments that joined the U.S. in quickly recognizing Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president came together over weeks of secret diplomacy that included whispered messages to activists under constant surveillance and a high-risk foreign trip by the opposition leader challenging President Nicolas Maduro for power, those involved in the talks said.

In mid-December, Guaido quietly traveled to Washington, Colombia and Brazil to brief officials on the opposition’s strategy of mass demonstrations to coincide with Maduro’s expected swearing-in for a second term on Jan. 10 in the face of widespread international condemnation, according to exiled former Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, an ally.

To leave Venezuela, he sneaked across the lawless border with Colombia, so as not to raise suspicions among immigration officials who sometimes harass opposition figures at the airport and bar them from traveling abroad, said a different anti-government leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss security arrangements.

 

Venezuela
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro gestures during a ceremony to mark the opening of the judicial year at the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ), in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 24, 2019. VOA

 

Building consensus in the fragmented anti-government coalition proved to be an uphill battle. The opposition has for years been divided by egos and strategy, as well as a government crackdown that has sent several prominent leaders into exile, making face-to-face meetings impossible. Others inside Venezuela were being heavily watched by intelligence agencies, and all were concerned about tipping off the government.

Encrypted text messages

Long sessions of encrypted text messaging became the norm, the opposition leader said. A U.S. official said intermediaries were used to deliver messages to Guaido’s political mentor and opposition power broker Leopoldo Lopez, who is under house arrest after he tried and failed to lead a mass uprising against Maduro in 2014. The U.S. official spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.

Despite Guaido’s personal assurances in Bogota that he would declare himself interim president at a Jan. 23 rally coinciding with the anniversary of the 1958 coup that ended Venezuela’s military dictatorship, the suspense lasted until the hours before the announcement, said a Latin American diplomat from the Lima Group who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Some moderate factions were left in the dark or wanted to go slower, worrying that a bold move would lead to another failure for the opposition. In the end, those differences were smoothed over internally, without any public discord.

Venezuela
Lawmakers Juan Guaido, center, President of National Assembly, Edgar Zambrano, left, first Vice President and Stalin Gonzalez, right, second Vice President pose after being sworn in during a special session at the National Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela, VOA

“This is the first time in at least five years the opposition has shown an ability to come together in any meaningful manner,” said a senior Canadian official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk publicly.

The decision to confront Maduro directly was only possible because of strong support from the Trump administration, which led a chorus of mostly conservative Latin American governments that immediately recognized Guaido.

It was no small diplomatic feat, given the mistrust of the U.S. in Latin America due to the painful memories stemming from U.S. military interventions in the region during the Cold War. The tough-handed approach drew bipartisan support, with two of the Senate’s most senior Democrats, Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez, offering praise.

Trump’s stunning remark

The watershed moment was President Donald Trump’s stunning remark in August 2017 from the steps of his New Jersey golf club that a “military option” was on the table to deal with the Venezuelan crisis.

Donald Trump
U.S. President Donald Trump attends a NATO summit at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017 VOA

In the weeks that followed, Trump went on to strongly condemn Maduro in his address to the U.N. General Assembly as well as quietly press aides and some Latin American leaders about a military invasion of the country.

From then on, countries in the region realized they had a partner in the U.S. willing to tackle a crisis that had been years in the making but which previous U.S. administrations had chosen to play down because of limited national security implications, said Fernando Cutz, a former senior national security adviser on Latin America to both President Barack Obama and Trump.

For some, especially Mexico, which was renegotiating NAFTA, adopting a more aggressive stance was also an opportunity to gain leverage in bilateral relations with the Trump administration.

“Trump has personally sparked a lot of this,” said Cutz, now with the Cohen Group, a Washington consulting firm. “Literally in every interaction that he has had with Latin American leaders since taking office, he brings up Venezuela. That has forced a lot of hands.”

Canada
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland takes part in a news conference at the Embassy of Canada in Washington, U.S., Aug. 31, 2018. VOA

On Jan. 4 — a day before Guaido was sworn in as national assembly president — foreign ministers from 13 nations of the Lima Group, which doesn’t include the U.S., said they wouldn’t recognize Maduro’s second term.

That set off a scramble at the White House to make sure it wasn’t being left behind, said a former U.S. official and congressional staffer who was in close contact with the national security council. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the administration’s planning.

Also Read: To Diffuse The Situation Venezuela, U.N.Rights Chief Calls For Talks

Playing a key role behind the scenes was Lima Group member Canada, whose Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to Guaido the night before Maduro’s swearing-in ceremony to offer her government’s support should he confront the socialist leader, the Canadian official said. Also active was Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela and has received more than 2 million migrants fleeing economic chaos, along with Peru and Brazil’s new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. (VOA)

Next Story

New Rule in USA to Allow Passengers to Bring Pet Animals on Flight

New Rules Could Bump Emotional-Support Animals From Planes

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Animals
Airlines can now let passengers bring other animals on board, but hefty fees would apply. Pixabay

The days of passengers bringing rabbits, turtles and birds on planes as emotional-support animals could be ending.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday proposed that only specially trained dogs qualify as service animals, which must be allowed in the cabin at no charge. Airlines could let passengers bring other animals on board, but hefty fees would apply.

Airlines say the number of support animals has been growing dramatically in recent years, and they have lobbied to tighten the rules. They also imposed their own restrictions in response to passengers who show up at the airport with pigs, pheasants, turkeys, snakes and other unusual pets.

“This is a wonderful step in the right direction for people like myself who are dependent on and reliant on legitimate service animals that perform a task to mitigate our disability,” said Albert Rizzi, founder of My Blind Spot, which advocates for accessibility for people of different ability levels.

Animals
Airlines say the number of support animals has been growing dramatically in recent years, and they have lobbied to tighten the rules. Pixabay

Tighter rules praised

The U.S. airline industry trade group praised the tighter rules. Industry officials believe that hundreds of thousands of passengers scam the system each year by claiming they need their pet for emotional support. Those people avoid airline pet fees, which are generally more than $100 each way.

“Airlines want all passengers and crew to have a safe and comfortable flying experience, and we are confident the proposed rule will go a long way in ensuring a safer and healthier experience for everyone,” said Nicholas Calio, president of Airlines for America.

Flight attendants had pushed to rein in support animals, too, and were pleased with Wednesday’s proposed changes.

“The days of Noah’s Ark in the air are hopefully coming to an end,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. The union chief said untrained pets had hurt some of her members.

Veterans groups pleased

Veterans groups have sided with the airlines, arguing that a boom in untrained dogs and other animals threatens their ability to fly with properly trained service dogs. Last year, more than 80 veterans and disability groups endorsed banning untrained emotional-support animals in airline cabins.

“It’s just interesting how people want to have the benefits of having a disability without actually losing the use of their limbs or senses just so they can take their pet with them,” Rizzi said.

Southwest Airlines handles more than 190,000 emotional support animals per year. American Airlines carried 155,790 emotional support animals in 2017, up 48% from 2016, while the number of checked pets dropped 17%. United Airlines carried 76,000 comfort animals in 2017.

Department officials said in a briefing with reporters that they are proposing the changes to ensure safety on flights. They also said some passengers have abused the current rules.

The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed changes, and they could take effect any time after that.

The Transportation Department proposes a narrow definition of a service animal — it would be a dog that is trained to help a person with a physical or other disability. Passengers who want to travel with a service dog will have to fill out a federal form on which they swear that the dog is trained to help them with their disability. A dog that is trained to help a passenger with psychiatric needs would continue to qualify as a service animal.

Animals on Planes
Oscar the cat, who is not a service animal, sits in his carry on travel bag after arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. VOA

Note from medical professional

Currently, passengers have been allowed to bring many other animals if they have a medical professional’s note saying they need the animal for emotional support.

The proposal would prohibit airlines from banning particular types of dog breeds — Delta Air Lines bans pit bulls, for example — but airline employees could refuse to board any animal that they consider a threat to other people.

The president of the Humane Society of the United States said airlines had “maligned” pit bulls by banning them. Kitty Block said the Transportation Department’s rule against breed-specific prohibitions “sends a clear message to airlines that their discriminatory practices are not only unsound, but against the law.”

The new rules would also bar the current practice by many airlines of requiring animal owners to fill out paperwork 48 hours in advance. A department official said that practice can harm disabled people by preventing them from bringing their service dog on last-minute trips. But airlines could still require forms attesting to an animal’s good behavior and health, which could present challenges if the form has to be completed by a specific institution, Rizzi said.

Also Read- Spain Takes a Step Forward to Combat Climate Change

The proposal also says people with service animals must check in earlier than the general public, and would end the rarely seen use of miniature horses as service animals, although a Transportation Department official indicated the agency is open to reconsidering that provision.

Airlines could require that service animals be on a leash or harness and fit in its handler’s foot space. They could limit passengers to two service animals each, although it is unclear how often that happens under the current rules. (VOA)