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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

As Venezuela’s Healthcare Collapses, Women and Girls Dying Needlessly

The surgeon is one of only three left at the Concepcion Palacios hospital in the Venezuelan capital

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Venezuela, Healthcare, Pregnant Women
Venezuelan girls beg for change where Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, April 14, 2019. VOA

In Caracas’s main maternity hospital the blood banks and medicine cabinets are empty, the power and water regularly cut out — and women and girls are dying needlessly, according to one of the few remaining doctors, Luisangela Correa.

The surgeon is one of only three left at the Concepcion Palacios hospital in the Venezuelan capital, where the lifts and most toilets are closed and there are no bandages, sterilizers or X-ray services.

“We are like trapped, kept hostage by this situation … hope is what keeps us here,” Correa, 45, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If we haven’t left the hospital, it’s because we hope that things will improve.”

Venezuela, Healthcare, Pregnant Women
A Venezuelan migrant woman holds a baby outside an immigration processing office on the Rumichaca bridge after crossing the border from Colombia to Rumichaca, Ecuador, June 12, 2019. VOA

One in four have left

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country to escape an economic and political crisis that has left about seven million — one in four — in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Its human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week after a three-day mission in March to the troubled South American country that Venezuela’s healthcare sector was in “critical condition.”

A lack of basic medicine and equipment was “causing preventable deaths,” she said — something Correa is witnessing at first hand.

Also Read- Nearly Three-Quarters of Young Americans Unfit to Serve in America’s Military

Infection rates at the maternity hospital are high because cleaners do not have disinfectants to wash away bacteria and there are no sterilizers for doctors to clean their equipment, she said.

“Currently, maternity is a risk for Venezuelan women, as it is for babies … many give birth at home, in the street,” Correa said.

“And there are no blood banks. Any complications from heavy bleeding is a very big risk of death for a patient.”

Correa, the U.N. and women’s rights groups all said unsanitary hospital conditions along with food and medical shortages had led to a rise in maternal mortality rates.

Venezuela, Healthcare, Pregnant Women
In Caracas’s main maternity hospital the blood banks and medicine cabinets are empty. VOA

U.N. findings disputed

The Venezuelan government disputed the findings of the U.N. report and said in a written response that maternal mortality rates had decreased by nearly 14% between 2016 and 2018.

Venezuela’s national healthcare system, once considered a model for Latin America, is now plagued by shortages of imported drugs and thousands of doctors and nurses no longer show up for work, their salaries ravaged by inflation.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said there is little need for humanitarian aid, blaming U.S. sanctions for the oil-rich country’s economic problems.

Also Read- Spotify Launches a ‘Lite’ Version of its App in India

The United States imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in January in an effort to oust Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 governments.

‘100% shortage’

CEPAZ, a coalition of women’s rights groups, has said Venezuela’s maternal mortality rates have increased by 65% from 2013 to 2016, with nearly 800 women dying.

Bachelet’s report cited a national survey that showed 1,557 people died due to lack of supplies in hospitals between November 2018 and February 2019.

Correa said she was seeing more pregnant teenage girls seeking care because they cannot find or afford contraception and do not receive sex education in schools.

According to the U.N. report, teenage pregnancies have risen by 65% since 2015, and several cities in Venezuela face a “100% shortage” of all types of contraception.

Strict abortion law

Due to Venezuela’s strict abortion law, which only allows the procedure under limited circumstances, some women and girls resort to unsafe abortions.

This has contributed to a rise in preventable maternal mortality, with about 20% of maternal deaths reportedly linked to unsafe abortions, the U.N. said in its report.

Correa says she is determined to continue to speak out about the dire conditions in public hospitals and help women in need. “The only thing we have are the outcries and hope that this will change,” she said. “My people, my country need me at this moment.” (VOA)