Guaido Rubbing Elbows In Surprise Foreign Trip

(Argus, 20.Jan.2020) — The US government is hoping a high-profile international tour by Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido will re-inject momentum into its protracted campaign to unseat President Nicolas Maduro.

Guaido turned up in Colombia today in the initial leg of his first journey outside Venezuela since an ill-fated February 2019 effort to bring in mostly US-supplied humanitarian aid from the Colombian border city of Cucuta and a fleeting regional tour. The details of his surreptitious departure from Venezuelan soil this weekend have not been disclosed.

The trip comes two days after the US government quietly re-extended a sanctions waiver for Chevron and four US oil services companies to operate in Venezuela, where oil production and exports have recently stabilized despite US sanctions.

Guaido will participate in a regional counter-terrorism conference in Bogota tomorrow, followed by expected EU and US visits, including a possible appearance at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland this week.

Colombian president Ivan Duque said he and senior cabinet members held a “very productive working meeting” with Guaido tonight to discuss the needs of Venezuelan migrants and “the importance of reestablishing democracy in the neighboring country.” Guaido, who was greeted at Colombia’s presidential palace as a head of state, said on Twitter that he appreciated Duque’s “support for the Venezuelan people’s struggle” and promised that his return to Venezuela “will be full of good news.”

Colombia is among more than 50 nations that recognize Guaido as the Opec country’s interim president, in place of Maduro, who claimed victory in a May 2018 election that was widely denounced abroad as fraudulent. But Maduro remains firmly in power, defying US oil and financial sanctions and lately tackling hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods with de facto dollarization and transfer of oil operations to foreign partners.

At tomorrow’s summit, Guaido will meet US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and rub elbows with foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, St Lucia, Uruguay and the US. Spain, Israel and Guaido’s US-backed interim administration will attend as observers, according to Colombia’s foreign ministry.

Not all of the governments represented at the meeting recognize Guaido. Mexico, Uruguay and more recently Argentina have sought to establish a middle ground in the conflict.

Still, the optics of the summit are meant to showcase Guaido as a statesman committed to fighting terrorism, which Maduro is accused of abetting by harboring Colombian guerrilla group ELN and dissidents from the former Farc insurgency that signed a peace deal with the Colombian government in 2016. Both groups and others — all tied to illicit drugs trafficking — routinely carry out attacks inside Colombia, including strikes on social leaders and infrastructure such as oil pipelines.

The summit also will address Venezuela’s alleged support for Iranian-backed Hezbollah in an offshoot of the White House’s controversial offensive against Tehran. While evidence of Colombian rebels’ presence in Venezuela has been repeatedly rolled out by the Duque administration, concrete proof of Hezbollah activity in Venezuela has not been publicly disclosed.

Fraught return

Guaido’s surprise trip is another gamble for his movement, one year from his vaunted 23 January 2019 declaration of an interim presidency. Maduro has not commented on his rival’s absence. With the backing of Russia, he could try to exploit Guaido’s trip by making another push to install a pliable National Assembly leadership to undermine Guaido’s constitutional claim to the interim presidency. Maduro could also seek to bar Guaido from returning to Venezuela based on his defiance of a longstanding government order aimed at preventing him from leaving. Guaido also could be arrested upon re-entering his country.

In comments to reporters today, Pompeo described Maduro’s removal as an “enormous challenge” and vowed to “help the opposition continue to congeal, continue to build forces” with the goal of free and fair elections.

By Patricia Garip ***

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