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Latin America Report

The U.S. and the world are dealing with Venezuela's Maduro again. What about Guaidó?

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AP
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (left) and opposition leader/interim President Juan Guaido

Turns out Nicolás Maduro's still the guy the world has to talk to in Venezuela. But recognizing Juan Guaidó as the country's legitimate president is still a useful tool.

This week Colombia’s leftist President-elect Gustavo Petro said he recently discussed bilateral issues with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — despite the fact that Colombia does not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.

But even top aides to President Biden are visiting Caracas lately to talk with top Maduro aides, even though the U.S. doesn't recognize Maduro, either. (On Thursday, the Biden Administration said it would make it easier for Venezuela to buy U.S. cooking gas.)

Other governments in the hemisphere that officially don’t recognize Maduro have been talking with his regime, too. So WLRN's Christine DiMattei asked Americas editor Tim Padgett: Where does this leave the man they all supposedly do recognize as Venezuela’s constitutionally legitimate president — opposition leader Juan Guaidó?

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Here are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity:

DIMATTEI: Tim, just to clear up the confusion here: do the U.S. and almost 60 other countries around the world still recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president and not Nicolás Maduro?

PADGETT: They do — although the European Union last year said technically it can no longer recognize Guaidó because his term as the leader of Venezuela’s National Assembly had ended. But the E.U. still does not recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate president.

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DIMATTEI: OK, so remind us why they recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president and not Maduro.

PADGETT: They insist Maduro’s presidential re-election in 2018 was fraudulent and unconstitutional. And they accuse him and his corrupt, authoritarian socialist regime of trashing Venezuela’s democracy — and its economy, which as we know has led to the worst humanitarian disaster in modern South American history.

So under Venezuela’s Constitution, if there is no legitimate president, the leader of the National Assembly becomes the interim president until a new election can be held. And that has been Juan Guaidó.

DIMATTEI: But why now are the U.S. and so many other countries re-establishing contact with Maduro and his regime?

PADGETT: Because the plan to drive Maduro out of power failed. He has survived to a degree they did not anticipate. In fact, he looks more secure now than he did when the Trump Administration declared him illegitimate three years ago.

And there are issues the U.S. and other countries need to engage Venezuela on, like the release of U.S. prisoners held there — and whether Venezuela’s oil industry can help make up for the petroleum we’re losing during the war in Ukraine. If so, we have to talk with Maduro about loosening U.S. economic sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports, because he still controls that oil.

The bottom line is: the U.S. and the rest of the world have resigned themselves to the fact that if they want to talk to Venezuela about these things, they still have to talk to Maduro.

Recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela's president gives the U.S. and its allies some leverage with Maduro — it keeps him on notice that the world condemns his corrupt, brutal and dictatorial rule.

DIMATTEI: If that’s the case, then what’s the point of still recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s president?

PADGETT: It’s still useful, because it gives the U.S. and its allies a certain leverage with Maduro. It keeps him on a sort of international notice — a way to remind him that the world still condemns his dictatorial rule; that he and his lieutenants are accused in the U.S. and around the world of drug and financial crimes; and the fact that the U.N. has accused his brutal regime and its security forces of crimes against humanity.

It also means the U.S. and the world are still serious about making him negotiate with Guaidó and the Venezuelan opposition to hold a free and fair presidential election — that he won’t see international sanctions lifted against his regime until that happens.

REALITY CHECK

DIMATTEI: This obviously hits home in South Florida because Venezuelan exiles here were the folks who convinced former President Trump to recognize Guaidó, right?

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Tim Padgett
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WLRN News
Thousands of Venezuelan expats gather in Doral in 2019 to hail the U.S. declaration that Juan Guaido is Venezuela's constitutionally legitimate president.

PADGETT: It’s certainly been a huge disappointment — especially when President Biden didn’t invite Guaidó to attend the Americas Summit in Los Angeles last month, because several Caribbean countries that still support Maduro threatened to boycott the gathering if Guaidó came. (Of course Biden didn’t invite Maduro, either.)

But I think it’s also a good reality check for Venezuela exiles. Too much of the diaspora here believed that just by having the U.S. recognize Guaidó as Venezuela’s president, Maduro’s regime would instantly fall. The fact is, it required a lot more time and a lot more painstaking international diplomacy than the diaspora and the Trump Administration were willing to give it.

DIMATTEI: How do they regroup now?

PADGETT: Right now Venezuelan exiles are mostly afraid that Colombia’s new president-elect Gustavo Petro — who is a leftist former guerrilla — will lend a helping hand to his fellow leftist Maduro.

But a lot of people think Petro would be politically smarter — at home and abroad — to use his influence with Maduro to get him to restore democracy in Venezuela. We'll see. But it will also be interesting to see if the Venezuelan exiles can reach out to Petro and persuade him to do that.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.