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Venezuela’s Maduro still has a diplomatic lifeline — and it’s in the heart of New York City

Flags of the United States and the United Nations are seen in front of the U.N. headquarters building in New York City on Jan. 26, 2019. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

Last month, the Trump administration joined dozens of other governments around the world to recognize Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president. The move left the Venezuelan government led by Nicolás Maduro without official representation in the United States, its embassy in Georgetown mothballed.

But as embattled as Maduro is, he still has an important diplomatic lifeline to the United States and the wider world. The Venezuelan leader still holds onto a seat at the United Nations in New York. Even though it is President Trump’s hometown, the U.S. government may ultimately find it easier to pressure Maduro out of power in Caracas than to boot his U.N. diplomats out of New York City.

Located on East 46th Street, the Venezuelan Mission to the United Nations sits just across from the U.N. General Assembly. The building, which was constructed in 1965, is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars. Photographs of the inside show a large building and faded grandeur, with artworks depicting the South American independence hero Simón Bolívar.

“These were investments that were made a long time ago that have not been maintained in many years,” Isaias Medina, a former legal adviser to the mission who broke with the government in 2017, said of the buildings owned by Venezuela in the United States. “Some of them are suffering infrastructurally, but they’re very well located.”

Though Washington no longer recognizes Maduro as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, the United Nations still does. This gives Maduro government officials a vital diplomatic link to the wider world — and may also allow them to continue their talks with the Trump administration itself. “Right there they have access to 193 countries in one place,” Medina said.

Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s foreign minister and a Maduro loyalist, traveled to New York City this week. While there, he greeted U.N. Secretary General António Guterres for his second meeting in a month. Arreaza later pulled together a number of diplomats from other nations, including U.S. foes North Korea and Iran, to announce joint opposition to “illegal, coercive unilateral measures.”

Maduro suggested in an interview this week that Arreaza has met with Trump’s Venezuela envoy, Elliott Abrams, twice in New York and asked the U.S.-based representative to visit the country however he wished, “privately, publicly or secretly."

Diplomats, including Samuel Moncada, Venezuela’s permanent representative to the United Nations, continue to work from the Venezuelan Mission in New York City. The east side of Manhattan has been home to the United Nations since 1952. The presence of the U.N. headquarters on U.S. soil complicates any American attempts to diplomatically isolate states to which the United States is opposed.

“The U.S. accepts that it has a responsibility to accept whoever is recognized by the General Assembly as representing a given state,” Richard Gowan, a fellow at the Center for Policy Research at United Nations University, said in an email. “It’s part of the basic host nation agreement with the U.N.”

North Korean and Iranian diplomats are present at the United Nations even though the United States does not have diplomatic relations with those countries. In some cases, the United States implements geographic restrictions on countries — North Korean diplomats may not travel beyond 30 miles from Columbus Circle, for example. It is not clear whether the United States has imposed any similar restrictions on Venezuelan diplomats, but Moncada traveled to Washington on Thursday.

Though the United States has thrown out some diplomats who breach their diplomatic status, it has rarely, if ever, thrown out U.N. diplomats simply because it unilaterally does not recognize their governments. In 2006, the U.S. State Department issued an apology for the brief detention of Maduro himself, then the Venezuelan foreign minister under President Hugo Chávez, at John F. Kennedy Airport.

Since declaring himself interim president, Guaidó has nominated a number of ambassadors: Carlos Vecchio, an exiled opposition leader, was accepted by the State Department as Guaidó’s representative in Washington in late January. Reuters reported last month that Guaidó had written to Secretary General Guterres to ask for help.

However, the U.N. chief has repeatedly told reporters that his hands are tied by protocol. “Recognizing governments is not for the secretary, it’s for the General Assembly,” Guterres’s spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said at a January news conference.

The simplest way to deprive Venezuela’s representatives of their seat at the United Nations would be a vote in the General Assembly. About 60 countries have announced that they view Guaidó as the country’s interim leader. It is unclear whether such a tactic might work: Maduro still has powerful friends who most likely would try to block such a move, including Russia and China.

Another option might be to go directly to the U.N. credentials committee and challenge Maduro’s right to represent Venezuela.

Milos Alcalay, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations who resigned in 2004 over concerns about human rights, suggested that there may be a way of using Arria Formula rules to allow Guaidó to have representation at the United Nations (the tradition is named after Diego Arria, another former Venezuelan diplomat). “If it is approved by the General Assembly, you could have different positions like you had for the Democratic Republic of Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany,” he said, referring to the Cold War-era East and West Germany, respectively.

The United States could also consider unilateral action, Medina said, such as declaring some of Venezeula’s U.N. diplomats personae non gratae. Hugo Chávez’s daughter Maria ­Gabriela works at the mission in New York, he noted: “She’s never even gone to the meetings. She just has the diplomatic passport and the immunity.”

Under another administration, that might be unthinkable. And even under Trump’s “America First” policy, it seems unlikely. Asked about the continued presence of Maduro representatives at the United Nations in New York, a senior administration official said only that the United States “is willing to meet with former Venezuela officials, including Maduro himself, to discuss their exit plans.”

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