MIAMI — Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó said Friday that he would return home in the "coming days" to face the consequences of slipping out of the country in defiance of a government travel ban for a high-stakes global tour in which he has sought to re-energize his bid to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
Guaidó, recognized by more than 60 nations, including the United States, as Venezuela’s rightful head of state, left Venezuela nearly two weeks ago and risks arrest upon return. In a phone interview Friday with The Washington Post, Guaidó said he was set to arrive in Miami in the coming hours for one of the last stops on his global jaunt — a rally at a cavernous convention center in a city that serves as the center of Venezuelan cultural life in the United States.
Yet even as the cameras have clicked in front of Guaidó and an array of world leaders, one key figure has thus far been noticeably absent from his album: President Trump.
Guaidó makes a surprise appearance outside Venezuela, defying travel ban to meet Pompeo, rally support in Europe
Guaidó held talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Bogota, Colombia, at the start of his trip, and met with other senior U.S. officials, including Ivanka Trump, at an annual meeting of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland. But a face-to-face with the U.S. president is seen as potentially providing a pivotal moment of unequivocal American support.
Guaidó said the two men had thus far been kept apart by complicated agendas. Last week, Trump and Guaidó ended up attending Davos at different times. In Washington this week, Trump has faced impeachment proceedings and unveiled a Middle East peace proposal with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Guaidó, meanwhile, jetted to Canada after meetings with a host of European leaders.
Guaidó did not discard the possibility that a meeting with Trump could still happen. Both men will be in South Florida this weekend, with Trump hosting a Super Bowl party at his Palm Beach estate, Mar-a-Lago. But Guaidó sought to play down the impact should no meeting happen.
“We have strengthened meetings with our allies in the United States and have made progress in that regard,” Guaidó said. “We are trying to match the agendas, but my return to Venezuela is already urgently needed to continue our internal struggle. We are trying to balance this, to see if there are possibilities or not. Let’s say we don’t rule out a meeting with Trump yet.”
If the encounter fails to happen — particularly with Trump only an hour’s drive up Interstate 95 — the significance will certainly be seen, and spun, in different ways. Some in the opposition have privately noted that the major goal of Guaidó’s trip was to cajole Europeans — who have been far less willing than the Americans to impose tough sanctions on Maduro — into taking a harder line. Guaidó, they argue, was at least successful in taking the opposition’s argument directly to Britain’s Boris Johnson, Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, among others.
In addition, they say, Maduro would probably have sought to portray a Trump meeting as more evidence that Guaidó is, as Maduro’s socialist partners have claimed, a U.S. puppet.
But analysts warned that the lack of an encounter — even a photo opportunity — could be taken as a sign of Trump’s lack of interest in Venezuela at a time when Guaidó is seeking to keep his crusade against Maduro alive despite official threats, kidnappings and power plays meant to undermine the opposition movement.
“Going to the United States without meeting with Trump is a risk for Guaidó,” said Geoff Ramsey, director of the Venezuela program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. “If the meeting does not take place, clearly that would have an impact for Guaidó in terms of domestic support [and] would show that for Trump, the issue of Venezuela is not a priority and is simply part of his electoral strategy.”
In Miami, at least, Guaidó is landing in decidedly friendly territory. Some of his most vocal backers include the state’s two Republican U.S. senators, as well as Venezuelan exiles based in the city and its environs.
More than 200,000 Venezuelans have settled in South Florida since 2014, according to a 2018 University of Miami study. Countless restaurants sell Venezuelan arepas (filled corn flour cakes) and tequeños (fried dough filled with melted cheese) in Miami and its satellite cities, including Aventura and Doral.
Millions of Venezuelans have fled poverty and hunger in recent years, though Miami is also home to wealthier Venezuelans who fled the socialist state founded when Hugo Chávez came to power two decades ago. Guaidó suggested that his visit to the city could be, in some ways, a replay of his reception in Madrid, another center of Venezuelan immigration where thousands turned out to hear him speak.
“I feel very excited to meet our people [in Miami], and to make visible the size of the Venezuelan diaspora,” he said. “But also to show the courage and strength of Venezuelans to see our country once again free and Democratic.”
Guaidó’s tour has thus far not yielded significant and concrete promises of more sanctions from European governments. But he described the trip as a success nonetheless, in part because he was able to offer firsthand accounts to Europeans about the hardships and repression in Venezuela. He also pitched the continent, albeit without a final resolution, on shutting down the shipment of illegally mined gold from Venezuela’s south to Europe, an operation the Maduro government has allegedly been pursuing to sustain itself.
“It was worth the risk in my case for several reasons,” Guaidó said. “The first one is to make visible the magnitude of the crisis. It is no small matter: There are 5 million refugees and 7 million Venezuelans at home facing a humanitarian emergency.
“The second, as you know, is what the dictatorship has been doing with the trafficking of Venezuelan gold,” he added. “That it is blood gold because it finances irregular groups, because it displaces indigenous communities.”
In January, in an interview with The Washington Post, Maduro called for direct talks with the United States — a call Guaidó seemed to dismiss as a ploy.
“My perception of what the dictator answered during your interview was damage control,” he said. “Again, wanting to be seen as someone willing to negotiate. . . . For us, [the path ahead] is very clear: a free election and guarantees for all sectors.”
The trip marks Guaidó’s first since he left Venezuela for Colombia last February to help lead a largely failed effort to push massive amounts of humanitarian aid from the United States and elsewhere into Venezuela.
He was allowed to return then without facing arrest, despite the travel ban against him.
This week, a senior member of the Maduro government — Diosdado Cabello — suggested that nothing would happen to Guaidó upon his return this time, either.
Is going back a risk?
“As you know, the risk [in Venezuela] exists every day,” Guaidó said.
Rachelle Krygier in Miami, Mariana Zuñiga in Caracas, Venezuela, and Anne Gearan in West Palm Beach, Fla., contributed to this report.