Envoys to Rival Venezuelan Leaders Jockey for Power Abroad

lunes, 29 de abril de 2019

The struggle between President Nicolás Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó is also playing out in embassies and international organizations overseas


When Humberto Calderón was appointed Venezuela’s new ambassador here after Colombia recognized the country’s opposition leader as president, it was a bit awkward.

Normally his office would issue passports, promote trade deals, liaise between Caracas and Bogotá and execute other consular tasks. But that’s not possible because President Nicolás Maduro still controls Venezuela and its state bureaucracy.

“We don’t have the tools. We don’t have the databases,” Mr. Calderón said from a Bogotá hotel conference room that serves as his temporary office. “But we do what we can.”

The struggle between Venezuela’s authoritarian President Maduro, who has led his oil-rich nation into its worst economic crisis in history, and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who also claims to be head of state, is also playing out overseas. Each man’s envoys are skirmishing for diplomatic compounds and seats on international bodies.

But with the U.S.-backed effort to remove the socialist Mr. Maduro from power stalled, many of the 54 countries that now recognize Mr. Guaidó have kept some level of ties with Caracas.

Organizations such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund still recognize Mr. Maduro, whose diplomats remain hunkered down in most of Venezuela’s embassies and consulates. And in the rare places where Mr. Guaidó’s envoys have influence, they remain largely figureheads.

“It’s a very bizarre, diplomatic Catch-22,” said Geoff Ramsey, an analyst who tracks Venezuela for the Washington Office on Latin America policy group.

The scenario has also produced some outlandish episodes.

Costa Rica, which recognizes Mr. Guaidó, gave Mr. Maduro’s diplomats 60 days to leave the embassy. But in February, Mr. Guaidó’s envoy, María Faría, barged into the building ahead of time and locked out Mr. Maduro’s contingent. After protests from the Costa Rican government, Ms. Faría retreated and allowed Mr. Maduro’s people back in.

Fearing a similar takeover of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, staffers last month allowed pro-Maduro activists, armed with sleeping bags and snacks, to stay overnight in the building. Some bunked down on couches underneath Venezuelan flags and portraits of Mr. Maduro in the ambassador’s office.

“We have created an emergency network to respond to any attempt to take over the embassy,” said one of the campers, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the U.S. antiwar group, Code Pink.

The U.S. State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment about Venezuela’s embassy in Washington. A spokesman referenced a statement from Vice President Mike Pence last week that urged the U.N. to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s leader.

In Colombia, Mr. Maduro ordered his diplomats out after abruptly severing relations with President Iván Duque’s government in February. They departed in such haste that they left behind two malnourished German shepherds at the ambassador’s residence.

“They were very hungry,” said Mr. Calderón, adding that one of his first tasks as envoy was to procure dog food.

Still, Mr. Guaidó team has been slow to occupy the few available embassy and consulate buildings in Latin America and Europe. One problem is a lack of cash to pay rent and salaries, to cover debts, and to refurbish sometimes deteriorated buildings.

When Carlos Vecchio, Mr. Guaidó’s ambassador to the U.S., inspected a Washington building that once housed Mr. Maduro’s military attaché, he found broken ceiling panels, moldy walls and rooms stripped of computers, office supplies and furniture.

“We saw the destruction of that building, and that is what they have done to Venezuela,” Mr. Vecchio told reporters after leading them on a tour.

A former Venezuelan diplomat who was stationed at the embassy in Bogotá said employees went unpaid for months. There was no money for gasoline, coffee or cleaning supplies. A broken toilet went unfixed, he said. The embassy is closed, as is the nearby consulate, where a sticker on the side door says electricity was cut for lack of payment.

The closures are a predicament for the 1.2 million Venezuelans in Colombia, including hundreds of thousands of refugees. Many hold expired passports with no way to renew them, forcing some to put off travel and other activities.

John Jairo Muñoz showed up at the consulate in Bogotá on a recent morning seeking documents that he needed to get married but was thwarted. “Guaidó is not really the president,” said Mr. Muñoz, who is now trying now to get the needed documents from Venezuela. “The president who controls everything in Venezuela is still Maduro.”

That is why most countries that recognize Mr. Guaidó still let Mr. Maduro’s diplomats operate. Mr. Ramsey, the analyst, compared Mr. Guaidó’s dilemma to that of the ousted Republican government of Spain after Gen. Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces seized power in 1939. The Republicans formed a government-in-exile that was recognized by numerous countries for decades, even as they did business with the Franco regime.

“Countries need to be able to talk to the de facto authority,” Mr. Ramsey, the analyst, said, calling the scenario one of the biggest risks to Mr. Guaidó’s push for power.

For now Mr. Guaidó’s mostly volunteer diplomats operate from hotel rooms, borrowed space at think tanks, coffee shops, and the back seats of Uber cars, said David Smolansky, an ally of the opposition leader who works on refugee issues at the Organization of American States in Washington.

Their efforts have achieved mixed results.

The OAS voted last week to seat Mr. Guaidó’s envoy on the regional body while ousting Mr. Maduro’s. But in March the Inter-American Development Bank canceled its annual meeting after China-which backs Mr. Maduro-refused to grant a visa to a Guaidó envoy that the multilateral lender had earlier recognized.

Michael Schifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group, said that is a blow to Latin America since China is such an important lender to the region. He chalked up much of the diplomatic disarray to wishful thinking by Mr. Guaidó and his allies.

“The whole strategy was motivated by this sense that if they would just appoint all these people and set up a parallel government then it would become a reality,” he said. “But that hasn’t happened, so you have this stalemate.”

By John Otis

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