Venezuela’s Guaid贸 angles for Trump meeting at end of trip – The Associated Press

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) 鈥 Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaid贸 wraps up an international tour with a rally in Miami on Super Bowl weekend with the looming question whether the opposition leader can score an important meeting with President Donald Trump.

Guaid贸鈥檚 ability to win face time with Trump in a symbolically important meeting will test the young political leader鈥檚 standing with his most important international ally.

鈥淚f Trump does not meet with Guaid贸, that would raise serious questions about the administration鈥檚 continuing commitment to Venezuela鈥檚 interim president,鈥 said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank. 鈥淚t might well be interpreted that Trump is hedging on Guaid贸.鈥

With his support down at home, Guaid贸 launched the second year of his so-far unsuccessful campaign to remove President Nicol谩s Maduro by defying a travel ban and slipping out of Venezuela seeking to shore up backing from leaders in Colombia, across Europe and Canada.

Venezuela has been a top priority in Latin America for the Trump administration, which was a year ago the first among nearly 60 governments to throw their weight behind Guaid贸. U.S. officials called Maduro a 鈥渄ictator,鈥 and hit the state-run Venezuelan oil firm PDVSA with sanctions among other financial measures designed to push out the socialist leader.

However, Maduro remains in control, having faced down a coup attempt, a brief renewal of mass anti-government protests and U.S. sanctions.

At various stops on his international trip, Guaid贸 has met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and White House adviser Ivanka Trump, the president鈥檚 daughter, but he hasn鈥檛 yet gotten to the U.S. president.

He missed Trump at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, arriving a day after the U.S. president left. The two will both be in Florida this weekend, but it is unclear whether Guaid贸 is on the guest list for Trump鈥檚 Super Bowl party at his Mar-a-Lago club 鈥 or invited to any other meetings.

A Trump-Guaid贸 meeting is under consideration and would likely take place this weekend in south Florida, according to two people, including a senior U.S. official. The official and another person familiar with the discussions spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren鈥檛 authorized to discuss the U.S. president鈥檚 plans.

Shifter said the lack of a Trump-Guaid贸 session would demoralize the Venezuelan opposition that has counted on Washington for unwavering support. It would also be puzzling to U.S. allies like Colombia and Brazil, which have worked in concert with the U.S. in fully backing Guaid贸, he said.

Guaid贸 has not delivered the change in Venezuela that the Trump administration and the country鈥檚 opposition expected, but he is still Venezuela鈥檚 most popular political figure, Shifter said.

鈥淭rump may be frustrated and believe he was misled on Venezuela,鈥 Shifter said. 鈥淏ut there is little cost in meeting with Guaid贸 as the democratic struggle enters a new, very difficult, phase.鈥

Guaid贸 emerged from the opposition in January 2019 to become the first viable challenger in years to Maduro, the hand-chosen successor of the late charismatic leader Hugo Ch谩vez. The economy continues to shrink after two decades of socialist rule, despite Venezuela holding the world鈥檚 largest oil reserves.

The political and social crisis is driving mass migration as Venezuelans abandon a country with shortages of reliable water, food, electricity, gasoline and medical care, among basic services.

Guaid贸 claimed presidential powers as leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, vowing before cheering masses in Caracas鈥 streets to overthrow Maduro and restore democracy. However, his plan hitched on flipping the military鈥檚 loyalty from Maduro, something that hasn鈥檛 happened.

Maduro today appears emboldened. Armed civilian groups loyal to the president patrol the streets on motorcycles, blocking Guaid贸 and allied lawmakers from entering their legislative hall. Intelligence police occupied Guaid贸鈥檚 office space after he left on his foreign tour.

鈥淭he biggest clown ever in Venezuelan or world politics declared himself as president,鈥 Maduro said in a celebratory address on the anniversary of Guaid贸 claim to power. 鈥淲ho the hell elected you?鈥

At the time, Guaid贸 was in Europe posing for photos with world leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Canada, he met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Guaid贸 wrote an op-ed published Thursday in the Miami Herald saying he was in the U.S. He thanked Trump, U.S. lawmakers and their counterparts in Europe and throughout the Americas for all they have done for Venezuela.

鈥淭hey have helped Venezuela in our time of greatest need, and no Venezuelan will ever forget that,鈥 he wrote. 鈥淭heir commitment has been extraordinary, but on behalf of our people, I must ask for more.鈥

Guaid贸鈥檚 planned rally Saturday in Miami is expected to draw a large number of Venezuelans in the biggest diaspora of expatriates living in the United States. It鈥檚 also a politically important swing-state for Trump.

Guaido might then make the risky move of returning home, although his team has not released details of this plans.

He completed a similar international tour a year ago, returning without hassles on a commercial flight that landed in Venezuela鈥檚 main airport outside Caracas. A coalition of allied foreign ambassadors greeted him in a show of solidarity.

Risa Grais-Targow, a Venezuela analyst for the Eurasia Group, said aggression by Maduro against the opposition in recent weeks 鈥 such as blocking them from their congressional meeting hall 鈥 shows Maduro is pushing the limits to see if the international community is still watching.

鈥淭here鈥檚 a potential for Maduro to be more aggressive toward Guaid贸,鈥 Grais-Targow said. 鈥淚t seems to me he鈥檚 feeling much more confident in his position today than he was, certainly, six months ago.鈥 _____

Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP

_____

Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed to this story from Bogota, Colombia.

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