Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized as the nation’s rightful president by the United States and nearly 60 other countries, defied a travel ban Sunday to make a surprise appearance in neighboring Colombia, the start of a global mission to shore up support for his movement.
The 36-year-old opposition leader is to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Bogota on Monday, according to people familiar with his plans. From Colombia, they say, he’ll continue on to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he will urge European officials to increase pressure on the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro.
President Trump is also expected to attend Davos this week, and senior figures in the Venezuelan opposition hope he will meet with Guaidó in what could be a pivotal encounter for the movement. The White House on Sunday did not immediately confirm a meeting.
Guaidó’s audacious dash out of Venezuela — he’s been prohibited by the socialist government from leaving the country — appeared aimed at breathing life into his crusade to oust Maduro. In an interview with The Washington Post published Saturday, Maduro suggested that he now had the upper hand in the U.S.-backed effort to force him from office, and said it was time for direct talks with Washington.
Guaidó’s popularity, meanwhile, has flagged at home, where his backers have grown weary and frustrated. Critics say he underestimated the authoritarian Maduro and overpromised the speed of a political transition they say is needed to alleviate the brutal economic crisis that has forced millions of Venezuelans to flee poverty and hunger.
Guaidó’s trip is his first outside Venezuela since last February, when he tried to push humanitarian aid into the country against a blockade ordered by Maduro. That confrontation ended with aid trucks on fire and skirmishes between opposition supporters and the Venezuelan military.
“Already in #Colombia, grateful to President @IvanDuque for his support of the struggle of the Venezuelan people,” Guaidó tweeted Sunday morning. “We will generate the conditions that will lead us to Freedom. And I assure you that the return to our country will be full of good news. Go Venezuela!”
Duque called Guaidó “president” and said they would meet later Sunday.
“We welcome Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó to Colombia,” Duque tweeted. “This evening we will hold a working meeting. President @jguaido will also participate, this Monday, in the Hemispheric Summit for the Fight against Terrorism.”
Guaidó’s trip, people close to him say, is meant to force the hand of Maduro, whose government has prohibited him from leaving the country. People close to Guaidó, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss planning, say he will certainly return — setting up what they see as a potentially pivotal showdown with the socialist government in Caracas.
Should Maduro’s government arrest Guaidó, it could trigger new international sanctions, further isolating the country. Should it allow him to return without taking action, as it did last February, it could show weakness.
“There are two scenarios,” said one person involved in the opposition strategy. “One is that he comes back and maintains his freedom of mobility. Or he comes back and gets imprisoned. But he will return, and the regime will be in a dilemma.”
Venezuelan government officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hyperinflation, joblessness and shortages of food, water and medicine have reduced life for many in this South American nation of 30 million to a daily struggle to survive. But Caracas, at least, is showing modest new signs of economic life: Government moves to ease controls on prices, currency and imports have put more food on store shelves, for those who can afford it. And this month, Guaidó has faced a new challenge, as pro-government forces have sought to oust him from his perch as head of the National Assembly, the opposition-controlled body widely seen as the nation’s last democratic institution.
Guaidó’s tour — particularly his meeting with Pompeo, and potentially in Europe with Trump — could revitalize his image at home as a leader capable of bringing change.
Caracas-based political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas called the move “bold.”
“Guaidó intends to show the world — and also Maduro — that he still has powerful allies,” he said.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Venezuela, including an oil embargo and individual restrictions on dozens of government figures. But the Europeans have treaded more lightly. Both the United States and the Venezuelan opposition are encouraging European nations to take a harder line on Maduro.
Guaidó is traveling at a sensitive moment in Venezuela’s political crisis. The socialist government is accused of bribing opposition lawmakers in a scheme to rob Guaidó of his legal authority as president of the National Assembly.
On Jan 5, government security forces blocked Guaidó and his supporters from entering the legislative palace while Luis Parra, a lawmaker who the opposition claims was bribed, was abruptly sworn in to lead the body.
The United States and other nations say Guaidó is still president of the assembly. That title serves as the basis of his claim to be the country’s true leader. The assembly declared Maduro a usurper after he claimed victory in 2018 elections widely viewed as fraudulent, a move the opposition said makes Guaidó interim president until free and fair elections can be held.
Maduro told The Post that Guaidó had “failed” as the head of a disorganized and bickering opposition and that Parra had won control of the assembly.
Maduro cast himself as the survivor of a year-long effort by the opposition and its supporters in Washington to force him out, and called for direct talks with the United States to resolve the political standoff that has crippled the socialist state.
He took aim at current and past U.S. officials, saying Trump had been ill-advised on Venezuela. He said he would forge ahead with new National Assembly elections this year, a move his adversaries view as an attempt to further consolidate control of the legislature.
Elliott Abrams, Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, said Saturday that Maduro “cannot be trusted to preside over new National Assembly elections this year,” particularly after the events of Jan. 5.
But he backed further talks between the opposition and Maduro.
“The United States favors negotiations between the Maduro regime and the democratic opposition under Juan Guaidó to arrange new presidential and National Assembly elections that are free and fair,” Abrams said. “Previous efforts have all failed because the regime never took them seriously and instead used them to try to gain time and divide the opposition. When the regime is ready, and engages in serious negotiations with the opposition, the United States will do everything it can do to help those negotiations succeed.”
At least one former Trump adviser was less diplomatic.
“Maduro tells The Washington Post he wants negotiations with the United States?” John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, tweeted on Sunday. “The only negotiations we should have with Maduro are what he wants for lunch on the plane that will take him to permanent exile in Cuba or Russia. Viva Venezuela libre.”
Photo: © Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó presides over a session of the National Assembly at a public amphitheater in El Hatillo last week.