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Maduro comes to New York despite being spurned by White House

While speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro says he is willing to meet with President Trump and to speak about anything the U.S. government wants to discuss. (Video: Reuters)

NEW YORK — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro had kept the world gathered along the East River guessing. Would he address the United Nations on Wednesday — or bow out, given the risk, he said, that he could be “killed” on American soil?

So when news broke Wednesday morning that the presidential plane had taken off from Caracas, a flurry of speculation followed. Would Maduro meet with President Trump, and somehow defuse rising tensions with the United States in a manner similar to North Korea’s Kim Jung Un?

Trump himself fueled the conjecture, saying he would meet with “anybody” when asked about the chance of a Maduro meeting, a day after he casually suggested the Venezuelan regime “could be toppled very quickly by the military.”

But even after the White House denied a meeting would take place, the now-slighted Maduro kept flying north, all brashness and bluster. He seemed totally unconcerned about the calls on Wednesday from six countries — Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru — for the International Criminal Court to probe him for crimes against humanity. He tweeted a photo of himself aboard the plane, saying he intended to “bring the truth” about Venezuela to the United Nations. He made a point of saying he was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, who was sanctioned Tuesday by the U.S. Treasury, which also seized a plane belonging to a Maduro ally.

At the U.N. General Assembly Sept. 26, President Trump said he would be willing to meet with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro if that would help Venezuela. (Video: Reuters)

Once landing in the lion’s den, Maduro met with two men who symbolize adversarial relations with the United States — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Like Venezuela, both countries have had crushing sanctions imposed on them.

Lavrov told Maduro, “We are ready to offer all-around assistance for all of your plans,” according to reports by Russian news agencies.

From the podium in the U.N. General Assembly where Trump had bashed him a day earlier, Maduro did not soften his tone or his message.

Accusing the United States of treating the world as its own property, he complained of “economic persecution” from U.S. sanctions, which prevent using U.S. dollars for international trade like oil sales. He cited Venezuela’s oil and gold reserves as the reason “oligarchies of the continent dominated by Washington are looking to dominate political power in Venezuela.”

Maduro called for a U.N. investigation into an Aug. 4 attack that was alleged to be an assassination attempt designed to trigger violence and provide a reason for an invasion. He called for the United States to offer the expertise of the FBI and top scientists to determine who was behind the attack.

Maduro also made another stab at setting up a meeting with Trump.

“Trump has said he’s worried about Venezuela and wants to help,” Maduro said. “Well, I’m willing to talk, with open schedule, about anything the United States wants to talk about, with humility, sincerity.”

Maduro arrived at a highly sensitive time, when talk of military intervention in the fast-collapsing country is escalating. Wednesday morning, even as Trump said he would meet with “anybody ,anytime I can [to] save lives, help people,” he reiterated that “all options are on the table, every one. The strong ones and the less than strong ones — and you know what I mean by strong.”

This month for the first time, Organization of American States President Luis Almagro said military intervention in Venezuela should not be ruled out. Although he later softened his language, his words suggested a growing frustration among experts and observers over bringing change to Venezuela through sanctions and diplomatic pressure alone.

In some ways, the crisis has brought Maduro to the height of his powers. In May, Maduro — the anointed successor of left-wing firebrand Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 — won a new six-year term following elections described by critics as a power grab. He now enjoys near-dictatorial powers, and has headed an operation to silence, arrest and expel dissidents and opponents, an effort that escalated following an apparent assassination attempt against him in August.

But his country is collapsing around him. With hyperinflation in his nation spiraling toward 1 million percent and chronic shortages of food and medicines, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans are fleeing the nation, overwhelming neighboring nations. Maduro, however, has denied the extent of the humanitarian crisis, while insisting his country’s woes are the product of U.S. interference and vengeful, selfish oligarchs.

It came as something of a surprise that Maduro was at the General Assembly at all. As recently as last week he said he feared for his life should he go. “I’m thinking about it because I’m a target to be killed,” he told reporters in Caracas last week. “I’m evaluating what security conditions I would have to go to New York. I want to go to New York, but I have to take care of my security.”

Yet despite Maduro’s claims of a U.S. plot against his nation, he has long expressed an eagerness to meet with Trump, particularly after he saw Trump go from calling North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “Rocket Man” at last year’s General Assembly session to praising him at this year’s. At a public event on Monday, Maduro said, “I think if President Donald Trump and I speak, we’ll understand each other. Hopefully, one day. I’ve seen miracles in life.”

Analysts suggested that unless Maduro was prepared to pledge significant change in course, a meeting with Trump could do more harm than good.

“The people working in the State Department on Venezuela know the danger of giving Maduro the legitimacy of an empty photo op with the president,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela expert with the Washington Office on Latin America, a Washington-based think tank.

Rachelle Krygier in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.