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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

U.S. and Russia To Come Up With An Agreement On How To Resolve Venezuela Crisis

Moscow strongly warned the United States “against any temptation to resort to military power” in Venezuela. Russian state news agency TASS quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. “We assume that Washington treats our priorities seriously, our approach and warnings.”

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Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams speaks at the State Department in Washington, March 15, 2019. VOA

U.S. Special envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams says Russia and the United States have failed to come to an agreement on how to resolve the crisis in Venezuela following talks in Rome. He did not rule out a future meeting between both sides and said the talks helped both sides gain a better understanding of each other’s views.

The United States Special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, described the Rome talks with Russian officials on the crisis in Venezuela as “useful, substantial and serious.” He said the conversations allowed the United States to understand that “Russia sees the crisis in Venezuela as very serious, unlike President Maduro,” mainly, Abrams said, in regard to the economic and humanitarian aspects.

Following a meeting with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, Abrams said, “We did not come to a meeting of the minds, but the talks were positive in the sense that I think both sides emerged with a better understanding of the other’s views.” The two sides remain at odds over the legitimacy of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The United States has recognized self-declared President Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, while Russia continues to recognize Mr. Maduro. Italy also has not given Mr. Guaido recognition.

FILE - Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country's rightful interim ruler, takes part in a rally against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Valencia, Venezuela, March 16, 2019.
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognized as the country’s rightful interim ruler, takes part in a rally against President Nicolas Maduro’s government in Valencia, Venezuela, March 16, 2019. VOA

Abrams met with the Pietro Benassi, the diplomatic adviser of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Abrams said the United States is not applying pressure on the Italian government to recognize Guaido as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

The meetings in the Italian capital took place as the United States imposed fresh sanctions on Venezuela, this time targeting the state-run gold mining company Minerven and its president.

President Donald Trump and visiting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro speak during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 19, 2019.

But at the White House, President Donald Trump on Tuesday reiterated that “all options are open” on the future of Venezuela.

“We are not looking for anything other than taking care of a lot of people that are starving and dying in the streets. What’s happening there is a disgrace,” he said.

Abrams stressed that negotiations are not underway because “We do not negotiate the future of Venezuela with Russia or others because the future of Venezuela will be chosen by the Venezuelans.”

Also Read: Know The Venezuelans Ways to Cope with Inflation and Hunger

Moscow strongly warned the United States “against any temptation to resort to military power” in Venezuela. Russian state news agency TASS quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying. “We assume that Washington treats our priorities seriously, our approach and warnings.”

Abrams did not exclude a future meeting with Russia on the Venezuela crisis but said no date had been set. The White House said President Trump will also discuss the Venezuela crisis with Caribbean leaders on Friday. (VOA)