Trump Gives Venezuela’s Guaidó the Embrace He Wanted

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WASHINGTON — Venezuela’s opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, has long hoped to land a meeting with President Trump that would demonstrate the United States’ support for his claim to being the country’s rightful president.

He struck out when he and Mr. Trump were both in Davos, Switzerland, last month, and then again when they were both in South Florida last weekend. The near misses fueled speculation that Mr. Trump had lost interest in supporting the chief rival of Venezuela’s leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, with whom Mr. Guaidó had been locked in a yearslong political stalemate.

But Mr. Guaidó’s visit to Washington this week more than made up for those disappointments when Mr. Trump gave him two moments in the spotlight that could lift him at home.

First Mr. Trump hosted Mr. Guaidó at his State of the Union address on Tuesday night and in his speech delivered one of his most forceful endorsements of the opposition, describing Mr. Guaidó as “the true and legitimate president of Venezuela” and promising that Mr. Maduro’s “grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken.”

In one of the night’s few bipartisan moments, Republicans and Democrats stood to applaud Mr. Guaidó.

Then on Wednesday, Mr. Trump met with Mr. Guaidó at the White House, which released photos of the two leaders walking together and of Mr. Guaidó in a separate meeting with Vice President Mike Pence. A scheduled meeting with reporters was canceled at the last minute.

Mr. Trump has backed Mr. Guaidó as part of his effort to topple the authoritarian rule of Mr. Maduro, whom he calls a “socialist dictator” who has destroyed his oil-rich nation’s once-vibrant economy. In addition to punishing sanctions, the Trump administration has tried to pressure Mr. Maduro’s foreign allies, including Cuba and Russia, to withdraw their support for his rule.

The appearances suggest that the two men’s needs remain closely aligned. Mr. Guaidó, who has struggled to maintain momentum in and outside Venezuela since declaring himself the country’s interim president last year, has been hunting for big international endorsements to regain that momentum.

Mr. Trump needs support in voter-rich South Florida, home to America’s largest community of Venezuelan immigrants, many of whom oppose Mr. Maduro. It is also home to voters who have fled other left-wing governments in Latin America, including tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans who resent Havana’s steadfast support for Mr. Maduro.

Shannon K. O’Neil, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on Latin America, doubted that Mr. Trump’s new show of support for Mr. Guaidó would make “any difference on the ground in Venezuela. It might make some difference in Southern Florida in November.”

“A handshake is great and the State of the Union — awesome. But what is the Trump administration really going to do?” she added.

Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, did signal on Wednesday that more substantive action might be on the way. Speaking at the Meridian International Center in Washington, Mr. O’Brien said the United States could impose sanctions on Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft, one of several energy giants that continue to do business with Mr. Maduro’s government.

“We’re letting the Russians and we’re letting the company know that their support of the Maduro regime is not a good business decision, but it’s also immoral, what it’s doing to the people of Venezuela,” he said. “I think you’re going to see some action either voluntarily from the company or the U.S. will likely take action in the near future.”

A Trump official speaking on the condition of anonymity said later that other energy companies that do business with the Maduro government, including Chevron, should also be on notice that the United States is not finished with its pressure campaign.

The official said the United States would not engage in direct talks with the Maduro government except to negotiate his exit from power. And he warned it not to “interfere with” Mr. Guaidó’s return to Venezuela.

In and around Caracas on Wednesday, Mr. Guaidó’s appearances in Washington were met with mixed reviews. Mr. Maduro delivered an emphatic verdict, releasing a statement condemning what he called Mr. Trump’s “interventionist expressions.”

The president’s statements, he said, represent an “effort to revive the failed strategy of government change by force” amid the United States’ “circuslike electoral spectacle.”

A year ago, many Venezuelans received Mr. Guaidó with open arms, believing he would be the one to finally force Mr. Maduro’s departure. Then came a series of political missteps, including a failed effort to win over the military.

But in recent weeks, as Mr. Maduro has tightened his grip on the country, Mr. Guaidó has been a source of frustration for many Venezuelans.

In a suburb outside Caracas called San Antonio de los Altos, Jesús Niños, 70, a retired radio announcer, said that he thought Mr. Trump’s words would “revive Guaidó’s power to bring people to the streets,” helping to “foment the breakdown of the government.”

Others were more skeptical that anything would change as a result of Mr. Trump’s threats.

“They’re just words,” said José Álvarez, 47, a security guard, “and they’re a joke on Venezuela, just like Maduro is playing a joke on the people of Venezuela.”

“If the United States and Guaidó had any power,” he said, “they would have already done something.”

Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Julie Turkewitz from Caracas, Venezuela. Isayen Herrera contributed reporting from San Antonio de los Altos, Venezuela, and Patricia Mazzei from Washington.

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