BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó joined leaders from the United States and Latin America in condemning President Nicolás Maduro as a promoter of terrorism as he tried Monday to buoy international support for his flagging movement.
The man recognized by the U.S. and nearly 60 other nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader got a red-carpet welcome to Colombia and stood prominently beside world heavyweights, including U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who gathered for an international conference to discuss regional cooperation against terrorism.
“We are honored by your presence,” President Iván Duque told Guaidó. “You will always have a friend in Colombia.”
The stately reception stood in stark relief to Guaidó’s recent tussles with national guardsmen blocking his entrance to the National Assembly in Venezuela as the country’s ongoing power struggle grows even more tense.
This week will mark one year since Guaidó stood before densely packed crowds of cheering Venezuelans and proclaimed himself the nation’s legitimate president, launching a bid to unseat Maduro that has thus far proven unsuccessful.
“There’s a big contrast over the international recognition and support Guaidó has in the diplomatic arena and how that translates into concrete actions back in Venezuela,” said Diego Moya Ocampos, a political risk analyst.
Leaving Venezuela is a risky move for the opposition leader, who the pro-Maduro Supreme Court has barred from leaving the nation. Guaidó has only traveled outside Venezuela one other time in the last year, sneaking across the border into Colombia to oversee a failed bid at bringing in humanitarian aid in February 2019. He returned on a commercial flight and was allowed back into Venezuela.
It’s unknown whether authorities will let him back again this time. He will go on to Europe after leaving Colombia Tuesday.
“That risk always exists in Venezuela,” Guaidó said to a bevy of journalists as he headed into a meeting with Pompeo.
The decision to travel underscores the limited options Guaidó is currently facing. Though he encouraged supporters to take to the streets after dozens of national guardsmen blocked him and other lawmakers from entering the National Assembly, there have been no major demonstrations. His push to oust Maduro now relies perhaps even more heavily on international pressure.
He used the Colombia meeting Tuesday to highlight links between Maduro’s government and armed actors like Lebanese militia group Hezbollah and Colombian rebels accused of operating within Venezuela.
“After today’s event I think the world has it very clear that there is a dictatorship that finances terrorism,” Guaidó said.
Pompeo shook hands warmly with Guaidó and together with other dignitaries laid a wreath of white roses in homage to 22 police cadets killed in a bombing last year at the General Santander Police Academy, where the meeting took place. In a speech, he blasted Maduro as an ally to terrorist groups that in contrast to other nations in Latin America is providing “a home” to Hezbollah.
“This is unacceptable,” he said.
Asked whether the U.S. is considering placing Venezuela on the state sponsors of terrorism list, Pompeo said only that Trump administration officials are “constantly evaluating” which nations should be included.
Moya Ocampos said he anticipates that the gathering will raise awareness of the established links between Venezuela and Hezbollah in generating illicit revenues and money laundering. But short of additional sanctions, it was unclear what other actions the coalition of nations might take.
Thus far, Maduro’s government has managed to stealthily evade punishing U.S. sanctions by accessing black markets and boosting cash revenue from alternative sources like gold.
“I think they’ve managed to successfully adapt to the existing sanctions,” Moya Ocampos said. “They’ve proven to be very resilient.”
Maduro allies including Diosdado Cabello, head of the powerful National Constitutional Assembly, brushed off Guaidó’s international tour, dismissing the Bogota event as “a conference of terrorists.”
“It doesn’t occupy any of our time, because in truth, it’s insignificant,” Cabello said.
Duque – whose nation has taken in at least 1.6 million Venezuelan migrants – has been an outspoken critic of Maduro and presented a 128-page report at the United Nations last year that he said provided detailed proof of links to terror groups.
But Duque came under fire when it was revealed that at least one of the images purporting to show rebel activity in Venezuela had actually been taken in Colombia, where remnant illegal armed actors still wreak havoc in parts of the country despite a 2016 peace accord with the largest group.
Maduro has repeatedly denied harboring Colombian rebels, though citizens in the restive Venezuelan border region often report their presence.
Duque shot back at critics who have questioned Guaidó’s strength Monday, characterizing his efforts as “brave” in facing off against Maduro.
“Maybe many speculate, ‘Why hasn’t Guaidó put an end to the dictatorship?’” Duque said. “This can’t be a discussion about individual capabilities. We know your bravery and that confronting a dictatorship with no limits is a task that goes beyond heroism.”