PARIS — When I first met Isadora Zubillaga in New York some 20 years ago, she was a young venture capitalist investing in Latin American start-ups, and I was an equally young reporter covering Latin America. She never mentioned politics. We soon lost touch.
So I was surprised when Ms. Zubillaga emailed me out of the blue recently to say that she’s Venezuela’s new ambassador to France, where I live, and could we catch up over coffee?
I was soon plunged into the surreal and tragic maelstrom that is Venezuela today, and I left wondering what’s to become of that country.
When I sat down with Ms. Zubillaga, now 51, at a cafe in central Paris, she was still as exuberant as I remembered, catching me up on the past two decades in the same accented but hyper-articulate English I remembered. It turns out that after a stint in the United States, which also included work at a human rights nonprofit, she returned to her native Caracas in 2005. There she worked for the nascent opposition leader Leopoldo López, eventually helping him found a political party to challenge then-President Hugo Chávez.
Now she’s a diplomat: She handed me a business card with her title, showed me a snapshot from her recent meeting with the American ambassador here and described her briefings at France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It was only when I pressed her that Ms. Zubillaga acknowledged why we were meeting in a cafe instead of at the Venezuelan embassy across town: She doesn’t actually work there. A man who also calls himself the ambassador does. She picked this cafe because when she comes to Paris for meetings, she sleeps nearby on a friend’s couch.
“Venezuela has two presidents right now, one the legitimate president, Guaidó, and the other, the illegitimate president, Maduro,” she explained, adding a key detail: “The control of the territory and the assets are in the hands of Maduro.” That’s Nicolás Maduro, the successor to Mr. Chavez, who presides over a murderous, kleptocratic government, a collapsed economy, chronic shortages of food and medicine and the desperate exodus of some four million citizens.
Ms. Zubillaga is part of a parallel diplomatic corps — a kind of court in waiting — representing Juan Guaidó. In January, Mr. Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, asserted that the Constitution makes him the interim president because the 2018 presidential vote was fraudulent. Nearly 60 countries, including France and the United States, now recognize him as such.
Mr. Guaidó — Ms. Zubillaga calls him President Guaidó — has 38 envoys mostly to countries in Europe and Latin America, often in places where Mr. Maduro has ambassadors, too. Mr. Guaidó’s camp wants Mr. Maduro to freely disperse food and medical aid, release hundreds of political prisoners, and step down so that a transitional government can oversee new and fair elections.
But since Mr. Guaidó doesn’t control the country — Ms. Zubillaga can’t even get her Venezuelan passport renewed — his envoys operate in a diplomatic gray zone. Many have day jobs. The representative in Sweden teaches at a business school. The one in Israel is a rabbi. They’re typically well-educated Venezuelans who can afford to live in far-flung countries.
“So far we have been working as volunteers,” she said. “I pay for everything myself. There is no budget.”
The envoys’ status depends on the context. Mr. Guaidó’s emissary In Washington, Carlos Vecchio, is recognized as ambassador and — following a standoff — now has possession of the embassy. Ms. Zubillaga is “Madame Ambassador” among the Lima Group of Latin American nations and Canada. But the French government calls her a “special envoy” because — despite recognizing Mr. Guaidó as president — they consider Mr. Maduro’s appointee to be the ambassador. (This lets France “dialogue with all the actors of this crisis” to press for a peaceful transition and get humanitarian aid into the country, a diplomatic source said.)
Many of Mr. Guaidó’s diplomats are exiles themselves. Ms. Zubillaga fled Venezuela in 2014 after she and her family were subject to a violent home invasion and the country’s second-in-command, Diosdado Cabello, called her a terrorist on TV. Mr. Cabello is accused by the United States of drug trafficking and of running a vast network through which he embezzles and launders state funds.
“We had friends who were in jail, who were killed,” she told me. “I woke the kids at 5 o’clock in the morning, it was still dark, and I said, ‘We’re not going to school today, we’re going to New York.’”
They later moved to Madrid, where Ms. Zubillaga had a part-time job with an organic olive oil company, and eventually got a Spanish passport. At night she worked for the Venezuelan opposition, speaking to families of political prisoners. She added that the now-vast Venezuelan diaspora — the number of Venezuelans in Spain alone has doubled to 320,000 in the past four years — gives crucial support, too.
Since Ms. Zubillaga was familiar with France — she has a master’s degree from the Sorbonne — she began representing the opposition here. She points to diplomatic progress: As an opposition representative in 2014, she entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs though the back door. In 2018, she was part of a delegation received publicly by President Emmanuel Macron. Now as “special envoy” she meets regularly with members of Mr. Macron’s foreign policy team.
Thanks in part to the opposition’s efforts, “there is a consensus in the world that we have a dictatorship that has destroyed the economy, that has destroyed the governability, that we have a failed state,” Ms. Zubillaga said.
She says Mr. Guaidó’s team wants to be ready to start rebuilding the country as soon as he takes over. “We need to introduce ourselves as a new government that is serious, that is professional and that is competent,” she says. “I want the transition to be very civilized and peaceful. They will realize that they have to go.”
But will these valiant efforts make a difference?
Washington has ratcheted up economic sanctions against Mr. Maduro’s government, but it seems to have little appetite for a military intervention (or even for protecting Venezuelans seeking asylum). Frank Mora, a Latin America specialist at Florida International University, says international pressure on Mr. Maduro is critical, but it isn’t enough to oust him, since “the forces of change have to occur from within the country.”
Inside Venezuela, however, the regime suppresses dissent by withholding food from, detaining, torturing and sometimes killing its critics; it has been especially brutal to military defectors. Human rights groups say that since 2017, government death squads have executed thousands of people in poor neighborhoods, often inside their homes. Ms. Zubillaga and the millions of other Venezuelans who’ve fled their country might never go home.
Ms. Zubillaga soldiers on, confident that her side will eventually prevail. “This is an epic,” she explained. “We have suffered prison, torture, people of our team have been killed, shot in the head or the chest, and we’re still standing without losing our commitment to democracy and our constitution.”
She recently got an additional title — deputy presidential commissioner for foreign affairs — and was part of a Venezuelan delegation at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But a team of Mr. Maduro’s diplomats was there, too.
I don’t pretend to know what would happen if the opposition ran Venezuela, but it would have to be an improvement. Because I’m moved by Ms. Zubillaga’s work, and out of journalistic obligation, I paid our cafe bill. “Thank you for helping Venezuelan democracy,” she said, before rushing off to another meeting. It was the very least I could do.
Pamela Druckerman is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story.”
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