By ALEXANDRA OLSON, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS (AP) — They came from the same country. They were in town for the same reason, as diplomatic representatives of their government. And they took pains to make sure their paths never, ever crossed.
Two separate diplomatic delegations represented Venezuela at the U.N. General Assembly this year, shadowing and circling each other in a fierce fight for international recognition as the country reels from an economic collapse and political uncertainty.
One set of diplomats represented President Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s head of state in the eyes of the United Nations system. The other group represented the shadow government of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, recognized as Venezuela’s rightful president by the U.S. and more than 50 other countries that have condemned Maduro’s 2018 re-election as fraudulent.
Neither rival leader showed up at the world gathering. But Venezuela nonetheless commanded attention, with U.S. President Donald Trump personally hosting one of four high-level meetings on the country’s political and humanitarian crisis.
Instead of facing his angry neighbors, Maduro flew to Moscow for an impromptu visit to his top ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In New York, the rival Venezuelan delegations steered clear of each other while battling bitterly to drive the narrative of separate public appearances and overlapping bilateral meetings.
Guaidó’s delegation could not enter U.N. headquarters as Venezuelan delegates, so eight Latin American countries provided them with credentials instead. One Venezuelan lawmaker entered as part of Argentina’s delegation. Another delegate was a “Honduran adviser,” and a third was a “Colombia expert.”
Maduro’s government controls Venezuela’s U.N. Mission headquarters. Guaidó’s people set up shop at Venezuela’s consulate in New York, vacated by Maduro’s diplomats after the U.S. revoked recognition.
Particularly sensitive were dual meetings with the foreign ministers of Spain and Portugal, which have officially recognized Guaidó’s presidency but have not yet responded to his lobbying for tougher sanctions on Maduro’s government.
The spectacle of the dueling missions managed to display both Maduro’s enduring grip on power and his growing international isolation.
So far, he has survived U.S. oil sanctions, quashed an April military uprising and walked out of Norway-backed negotiations with the opposition last month. He has the financial and political backing of Russia and China, two powerful U.N. Security Council members.
So, it was Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, and other diplomats who sat in Venezuela’s chair for the General Assembly debate, the Climate Action Summit and other U.N.-organized gatherings. Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodríguez, will deliver Venezuela’s address Friday.
But Venezuela’s closest neighbors ignored Arreaza and staged a concerted effort to thrust’s Guaidó’s diplomats into the spotlight.
Maduro’s people were shut out of high-level talks to discuss Venezuela’s crisis, which climaxed with more than a dozen Latin American countries agreeing to investigative and arrest Venezuelan government officials and associates suspected of drug trafficking, money laundering and financing terrorism.
Canada, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador convened a meeting on Venezuela’s migration crisis at U.N. headquarters. That gave Guaidó’s chief foreign policy adviser, Julio Borges, the chance to sit behind Venezuela’s nameplate at U.N. conference rooms, even if not in the iconic green-marbled General Assembly hall.
Borges, a former Venezuelan lawmaker now exiled in Colombia, tweeted video of the scene.
“I think this really highlights the gap between the democratic legitimacy and the de facto control on the ground. The opposition has one and not the other,” said Geoff Ramsey, a researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
“This General Assembly isn’t going as well as Maduro hoped it would,” Ramsey said. “He wants to normalize relations with the rest of Latin American and get out of this rut, and what we are seeing is that they have made clear this isn’t going to happen without new presidential elections.”
Arreaza scorned the borrowed U.N. credentials as a sign of Guaidó’s illegitimacy.
“They are wandering like ghosts at the United Nations,” Arreaza told reporters. “They are wandering around with credentials through the missions of other countries. It’s the most absurd thing—absolute desperation.”
Guaidó’s representatives saw the passes as symbolic of the solidarity of Venezuela’s neighbors.
“In a courageous effort, several countries helped us get access,” said Miguel Pizarro, an exiled Venezuelan lawmaker. He said the passes were just one part of an effort months in the making to ensure that Guaidó’s delegation had a robust presence.
Arreaza kept up a stream of videos and photos on Twitter that showed the diplomatic isolation was not universal: There he was shaking hands with a grinning Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the General Assembly hall; sharing a laugh during an exchange with South African delegates; and chatting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who, Arreaza claimed, “showed interest in the aggression against the Venezuelan people.”
And there was Arreaza laughing with the foreign ministers of Spain and Portugal, despite their official recognition of Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president.
Spain and Portugal also met one-on-one with Borges, who said later both countries “understand the blame for the failed negotiations lies with Maduro.”
Portugal and Spain, for their part, kept the meetings under the radar. Spain waited days to issue a carefully worded statement that the meetings were intended to push for the resumption of negotiations.
Underscoring what’s at stake, both Arreaza and Borges met with U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet to discuss her report last year documenting repression of political opponents, arbitrary detentions, torture and nearly 5,300 killings by Venezuela’s security forces.
Arreaza came away with an agreement to allow the U.N. officers access to detention centers and freedom of movement in the country. While that showed Maduro responding to international pressure, it also underscored that he remains the authority in Venezuela.
Alexandra Olson, a former Venezuela correspondent for The Associated Press has written about Latin America for the AP since 2000. Follow her on Twitter at @AlexOlson99.