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Monday May 25th, 2020 2:28PM

Venezuela's Guaidó angles for Trump meeting at end of trip

By The Associated Press
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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó wraps up an international tour with a rally in Miami on Super Bowl weekend with the looming question whether the opposition leader can score an important meeting with President Donald Trump.

Guaidó's ability to win face time with Trump in a symbolically important meeting will test the young political leader’s standing with his most important international ally.

“If Trump does not meet with Guaidó, that would raise serious questions about the administration’s continuing commitment to Venezuela’s interim president,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. “It might well be interpreted that Trump is hedging on Guaidó.”

With his support down at home, Guaidó launched the second year of his so-far unsuccessful campaign to remove President Nicolás Maduro by defying a travel ban and slipping out of Venezuela seeking to shore up backing from leaders in Colombia, across Europe and Canada.

Venezuela has been a top priority in Latin America for the Trump administration, which was a year ago the first among nearly 60 governments to throw their weight behind Guaidó. U.S. officials called Maduro a “dictator," and hit the state-run Venezuelan oil firm PDVSA with sanctions among other financial measures designed to push out the socialist leader.

However, Maduro remains in control, having faced down a coup attempt, a brief renewal of mass anti-government protests and U.S. sanctions.

At various stops on his international trip, Guaidó has met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and White House adviser Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, but he hasn’t yet gotten to the U.S. president.

He missed Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, arriving a day after the U.S. president left. The two will both be in Florida this weekend, but it is unclear whether Guaidó is on the guest list for Trump's Super Bowl party at his Mar-a-Lago club — or invited to any other meetings.

A Trump-Guaidó meeting is under consideration and would likely take place this weekend in south Florida, according to two people, including a senior U.S. official. The official and another person familiar with the discussions spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the U.S. president’s plans.

Shifter said the lack of a Trump-Guaidó session would demoralize the Venezuelan opposition that has counted on Washington for unwavering support. It would also be puzzling to U.S. allies like Colombia and Brazil, which have worked in concert with the U.S. in fully backing Guaidó, he said.

Guaidó has not delivered the change in Venezuela that the Trump administration and the country's opposition expected, but he is still Venezuela's most popular political figure, Shifter said.

“Trump may be frustrated and believe he was misled on Venezuela,” Shifter said. “But there is little cost in meeting with Guaidó as the democratic struggle enters a new, very difficult, phase.”

Guaidó emerged from the opposition in January 2019 to become the first viable challenger in years to Maduro, the hand-chosen successor of the late charismatic leader Hugo Chávez. The economy continues to shrink after two decades of socialist rule, despite Venezuela holding the world's largest oil reserves.

The political and social crisis is driving mass migration as Venezuelans abandon a country with shortages of reliable water, food, electricity, gasoline and medical care, among basic services.

Guaidó claimed presidential powers as leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, vowing before cheering masses in Caracas' streets to overthrow Maduro and restore democracy. However, his plan hitched on flipping the military's loyalty from Maduro, something that hasn't happened.

Maduro today appears emboldened. Armed civilian groups loyal to the president patrol the streets on motorcycles, blocking Guaidó and allied lawmakers from entering their legislative hall. Intelligence police occupied Guaidó’s office space after he left on his foreign tour.

“The biggest clown ever in Venezuelan or world politics declared himself as president,” Maduro said in a celebratory address on the anniversary of Guaidó claim to power. “Who the hell elected you?”

At the time, Guaidó was in Europe posing for photos with world leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Canada, he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Guaidó wrote an op-ed published Thursday in the Miami Herald saying he was in the U.S. He thanked Trump, U.S. lawmakers and their counterparts in Europe and throughout the Americas for all they have done for Venezuela.

“They have helped Venezuela in our time of greatest need, and no Venezuelan will ever forget that,” he wrote. “Their commitment has been extraordinary, but on behalf of our people, I must ask for more.”

Guaidó's planned rally Saturday in Miami is expected to draw a large number of Venezuelans in the biggest diaspora of expatriates living in the United States. It's also a politically important swing-state for Trump.

Guaido might then make the risky move of returning home, although his team has not released details of this plans.

He completed a similar international tour a year ago, returning without hassles on a commercial flight that landed in Venezuela’s main airport outside Caracas. A coalition of allied foreign ambassadors greeted him in a show of solidarity.

Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela analyst for the Eurasia Group, said aggression by Maduro against the opposition in recent weeks — such as blocking them from their congressional meeting hall — shows Maduro is pushing the limits to see if the international community is still watching.

“There’s a potential for Maduro to be more aggressive toward Guaidó,” Grais-Targow said. “It seems to me he’s feeling much more confident in his position today than he was, certainly, six months ago.” _____

Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

_____

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this story from Bogota, Colombia.

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