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World & Nation

U.S., Russia clash at United Nations over crisis in Venezuela and who is legitimate president

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Jorge Arreaza, the foreign minister of President Nicolas Maduro’s Venezuelan government, reacts as Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo criticizes Maduro at a special session of the United Nations Security Council in New York on Jan. 26, 2019.
(Associated Press)

The United States on Saturday urged the United Nations Security Council to recognize a Venezuelan opposition leader as the country’s president to replace authoritarian leader Nicolas Maduro, but Russia quickly voiced stiff opposition to the move.

Late in the day, an immediate clash between the U.S. and Venezuela was averted when Maduro’s government announced that it was stepping back from a Sunday deadline it had set for U.S. diplomats to leave the country. Instead, the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry said, it had negotiated a 30-day delay during which the two nations would seek to establish “interests offices” in each country. The U.S. had initially said it would defy the order issued Wednesday but then began moving out nonessential personnel.

At the emergency U.N. session called by the U.S., Moscow and Washington clashed openly over what the Trump administration characterized as a return to democracy, and what Russia labeled an illegal coup that meddled in a sovereign nation’s domestic affairs.

“The time is now to support the Venezuelan people, recognize the new democratic government led by interim President [Juan] Guaido, and end this nightmare,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told the Security Council in New York. “No excuses.”

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Pompeo emphasized the humanitarian catastrophe that Venezuela is suffering, blaming Maduro and his looting of government coffers for plunging Venezuelans into abject poverty, starvation and death.

He then segued into a core concern for the Trump administration: the financial, political and military support the Maduro government receives from Russia, China and, especially, Cuba.

“It’s not a surprise that those who rule without democracy in their own countries are trying to prop up Maduro while he is in dire straits,” Pompeo said.

Saturday’s session was not aimed at producing a resolution, as Russia would probably veto, but to air the issue and measure support for one side or the other.

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The Trump administration recognized the 35-year-old Guaido on Wednesday, when he proclaimed himself interim president because of his role as head of the National Assembly, and as tens of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas in protest of Maduro. The U.S. immediately granted the Guaido forces $20 million in humanitarian aid in an attempt to shore up its claim on power.

Pompeo called for other members of the Security Council to back Guaido as interim president while Venezuela moves through a transition government to new, free elections. The most recent elections, last year, which gave Maduro a second six-year term, were regarded as a sham by most international observers.

“Now, it is time for every other nation to pick a side,” Pompeo said. “No more delays; no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”

The U.S. position received support of varying degrees from about half a dozen of the council’s 15 countries, including France and Germany, which said they would recognize Guaido unless Maduro calls new elections within eight days. In addition to Russia, at least three other countries were strongly opposed; several abstained. No formal resolution was drafted.

Venezuela, which is not a member of the Security Council, was represented in the session by Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, who condemned what he cited as Washington’s long history of arrogant interventionism.

“I cannot say the United States was behind this coup,” Arreaza said. “No. The United States was not behind but at the forefront of the coup! In the vanguard! Giving the orders!”

In the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, Guaido expressed thanks for the international support and promised not to abandon his effort to chase Maduro from office. Speaking at a rally of about 2,000 followers in the affluent Las Mercedes neighborhood, he paid special thanks to the United Kingdom, which he said has refused to turn over $1.2 billion in gold to the Maduro government.

“The decision of the Bank of England to not return gold to the usurpers is the beginning of the protection of Venezuelan assets,” Guaido said. “We are not going to permit more abuses and that they rob the money, food and medicines of Venezuelans…. The [gold] does not belong to the government, it should be used to attend to the health and feeding of Venezuelans.”

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He also took an informal vote among those present on a proposed amnesty law that he has promoted in the National Assembly. The majority there expressed support for the proposal to exonerate members of the police and military who support the opposition’s “restitution of democracy” while forcing the release of political prisoners.

According to the civil society group Penal Forum in Caracas, Maduro is holding 281 political prisoners.

The immediate effect of an amnesty law is questionable as a rival constitutional assembly Maduro formed in 2017 has taken over powers claimed by the freely elected National Assembly headed by Guaido. On Tuesday, Maduro’s constitutional assembly declared null and void all legislative acts by the National Assembly, including Guaido’s designation as president.

At the U.N., an effort by the U.S. to sponsor a joint “presidential statement” of support for Guaido was blocked by Russia and China, Pompeo said.

Russia then sought to stop Saturday’s session before it started, saying Venezuela’s internal politics were not a rightful topic for the Security Council to review. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, said that doing so was a “gross abuse” of Security Council members’ power in support of the “shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and its allies.”

Speaking later in the full Security Council session, Nebenzia invoked U.S. attempts to control politics in Latin America through the generations as proof of Washington’s true goals now: a change of government as a “favorite game,” he said.

Pompeo stared icily at Nebenzia as he spoke.

The administration sought to underscore the seriousness with which it regards the Venezuela crisis by dispatching Pompeo to Saturday’s meeting. The secretary of State only rarely makes such an appearance, although the United States is without an ambassador to the U.N. after the resignation of Nikki Haley at the end of last year.

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Pompeo was accompanied by his newly appointed special envoy for Venezuela, veteran U.S. diplomatic hawk Elliott Abrams.

Abrams, who served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, was an unusual choice. His efforts to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua in the 1980s ultimately failed and landed him in a criminal case as part of the notorious Iran-Contra scandal that exposed illicit U.S. activities. Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress.

Abrams debuted his new role Saturday, speaking toward the end of the session after Pompeo had departed. He lashed out at Arreaza and the Russians for referring to countries that support the U.S. as “satellites.” The true satellite here, Abrams said, “is Venezuela.… A satellite of Cuba.”

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Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondent Mogollon from Caracas.


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