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Washington Welcomes Exiled Political Activist As Venezuela's Ambassador

Jan 31, 2019
Originally published on January 31, 2019 5:10 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You cannot follow the political crisis in Venezuela without also following diplomatic moves by the United States. The U.S. has supported an opposition leader who is seeking to replace President Nicolas Maduro. And this week in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence welcomed a new top diplomat from Venezuela to the White House. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Washington has rolled out the red carpet for the Venezuelan lawyer and political activist Carlos Vecchio. The State Department calls him ambassador. He represents national assembly leader Juan Guaido, who the U.S. and many other countries are backing as they pressure Nicolas Maduro to step aside.

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CARLOS VECCHIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: Vecchio is making clear this is not a fight between the U.S. and Maduro. This, he says, is a fight between democracy and dictatorship. Carlos Vecchio is a smooth-talking former Fulbright scholar who's been charged with incitement back home. He's been living in exile in recent years and is now working with U.S. authorities to track down and freeze Venezuelan government assets.

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VECCHIO: We want to protect first our assets, to preserve those assets in favor of our people because otherwise, they will destroy them. And one of them is our embassy right here. And we want to do that in a progressive manner, orderly and following the legal procedures of this country.

KELEMEN: Maduro called his diplomats home. The U.S. downsized its embassy in Caracas for security reasons but kept a core team there to support interim President Guaido. As for Venezuela's assets, the Trump administration's point person, Elliott Abrams, says those accounts should be under Guaido's control.

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ELLIOTT ABRAMS: They are making an effort now to find out, well, what are those assets? Where does the government of Venezuela, of last week, have accounts that can be reached? Obviously, if they have an account in Moscow, we're not going to get at it.

KELEMEN: Abrams says the interim leader wants to use government accounts for humanitarian aid, but he's not sure how much is really there.

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ABRAMS: There are not large amounts of assets in the account of the embassy in Washington, certainly not enough for a very significant humanitarian program. So they - we are all looking around the world to see what other assets there are, whether in bank accounts or, you know, holdings like gold.

KELEMEN: Elliott Abrams has a long and complicated history in the region. He was President Reagan's point person on Latin America and pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra affair, though he was later pardoned. Abrams says it's no surprise that Maduro's foreign minister raised that during a public U.N. meeting last weekend.

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ABRAMS: But you didn't hear that from any democratic country because we are not focused on the events of the 1980s. We are focused on the events of 2019.

KELEMEN: Abrams says the U.S. and others in the region are hoping there will be a peaceful transition of power in Venezuela. And he warns it will be an extremely foolish move for the regime to move against Guaido. As for Guaido's envoy, Vecchio says this is a temporary job on behalf of the national assembly until new elections are held.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VECCHIO: (Speaking Spanish).

KELEMEN: "I told them this will be the shortest post of my life," he says, "because we are all waiting to go back to Venezuela." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.