Biden sidelines Venezuela’s pro-democracy leader from summit

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos, File
Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A little more than two years ago, Juan Guaidó was showered with bipartisan applause when President Donald Trump during his State of the Union speech praised the Venezuelan opposition leader as a “very brave man” who carries on his shoulders the democratic hopes of an entire nation.

But in a sign of how far his political fate has fallen, and how quickly U.S. geopolitical calculations can shift, the 38-year-old wasn’t even invited to this week’s Summit of the Americas — despite the Biden administration’s persistent promotion of democracy and insistence it recognizes Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president.

Meanwhile, the man Guaidó has been trying to unseat, Nicolás Maduro, is taking something of a victory lap. On a rare foreign trip to Turkey this week, Maduro, who is the target of U.S. sanctions and a federal narcotics indictment, denounced the decision to exclude him and leftist allies from Cuba and Nicaragua from the gathering as a “stab” in the back of regional cooperation.

“This is a clear win for Maduro,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of Americas, said from Los Angeles, where he was attending the summit. “He’s seen allies take up his cause at the summit while preventing his primary rival, whom Washington recognizes as president, from attending.”

In what may be an attempt at damage control, Biden on Wednesday spoke with Guaidó. It was the first time the two leaders have spoken and during the call, which lasted around 17 minutes, Biden reiterated his support for Guaidó, whose claim to the presidency stems from his role as head of the National Assembly elected in 2015.

“President Biden expressed his support for Venezuelan-led negotiations as the best path toward a peaceful restoration of democratic institutions, free and fair elections, and respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Venezuelans,” according to a White House readout of the call. “They discussed the role the United States and other international partners can play to support a negotiated solution to Venezuela’s crisis. President Biden reaffirmed the United States is willing to calibrate sanctions policy as informed by the outcomes of negotiations that empower the Venezuelan people to determine the future of their country.”

But coming on the heels of weeks of silence from the White House about whether Guaidó would be invited or not, the call provided little comfort to Venezuela’s pro-democracy movement.

“We don’t want to be seen as party crashers going where we aren’t wanted,” said one Guaidó envoy on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic dealings.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan downplayed suggestions the U.S. was snubbing a staunch ally.

Speaking aboard Air Force One on its way to Los Angeles, Sullivan insisted the decision to not invite anyone from the Guaidó camp, and instead involve civil society activists from Venezuela, was a tactical one to encourage negotiations between Maduro and his opponents that leads to “ultimately a better future for the Venezuelan people.”

Guaido’s possible presence at the summit also appears to have irritated many of the Venezuelan government’s allies, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who decided to skip the summit over the exclusion of Maduro and the leaders of Cuba and Nicaragua.

A Mexican official confirmed that his government asked the U.S. to exclude Guaidó as part of its back-and-forth with the Biden administration on the guest list, an effort that ultimately failed to persuade López Obrador to partake in the summit. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic dealings, said that other countries had done the same.

Joining the Mexican leader’s boycott were fellow leftist leaders of Bolivia, Grenada, Honduras, St. Kitts & Nevis, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Also staying home in protest, although not in solidarity with Maduro, were the leaders of El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as the president Uruguay, who was exposed to COVID.

But it’s not just foreign pressure that has Biden wary of inviting Guaidó.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered a spike in energy prices, the U.S. has started to re-evaluate its policy on Venezuela, a country that sits atop the world’s largest petroleum reserves but whose decades-long decline in oil production has been made worse by U.S. sanctions.

In March, U.S. officials led by Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the western hemisphere, traveled to Caracas to meet with Maduro. Then, as now, Guaidó was kept on the sidelines, with U.S. officials not meeting with him during the several day trip. The goal of the talks was to dangle before Maduro the possibility of sanctions relief in exchange for a return to negotiations in Mexico with his opponents, something that so far hasn’t happened.

Meanwhile, Guaidó continues to fight for change, although his street appearances are less frequent, and crowds greatly diminished from when he launched his challenge to Maduro in 2019.

On Saturday, his supporters were met in the western city of Maracaibo, a short distance from Colombia and a flight onward to the U.S., with a barrage of flying plastic chairs and fisticuffs from allies of Maduro.

“The violent ones were left empty handed,” Guaidó told a small group of supporters to shouts of “Freedom, Freedom, Freedom” after the raucous brawl. “Let’s be clear: we are not going to take a single step backward.”