Guaidó takes the helm: Supporting the new Venezuelan interim government

On January 30, 2019, the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center gathered distinguished experts and governmental leaders to discuss the new interim government of Venezuela—led by Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly—and the future of democratic transition in the country. The event served as the first public forum for newly appointed ambassadors of the Guaidó administration, as well as a focal point for discussing the international community’s role in supporting the prospects for democracy in Venezuela. The event consisted of two panel discussions, followed by questions from the audience.

The first panel featured the following speakers: Carlos Vecchio, Chargé d’Affairs to the United States by the Interim Government of Venezuela; Julio Borges, Representative to the Lima Group for the Interim Government of Venezuela; David Smolansky, Coordinator for the Working Group to Address the Regional Crisis Caused by Venezuelan Migrant and Refugee Flows at the Organization of American States. The second panel featured the following speakers H.E. David O’Sullivan, Ambassador to the United States from the European Union; H.E. Manuel María Cáceres, Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Paraguay; H.E. Alfonso Silva, Ambassador to the United States from the Republic of Chile, and the Hon. Ed Royce, former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives.

Fred Kempe, President and CEO of the Atlantic Council, kicked off the event by outlining the context and significance of recent events in Venezuela. Kempe brought a macro view to the discussion, noting that what is going on in Venezuela is indicative of larger global trends. He stated, “This is a contest between democracy and autocracy. This gets to the heart of the wellbeing of the Venezuelan people, which is of first and foremost importance.”

Jason Marczak, Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, also gave opening remarks in which he reiterated the need for continued international cooperation on the issue. Marczak stated, “It is imperative that as much is done as possible by the international community to help the interim government led by Juan Guaidó to be successful and to exert pressure on Maduro and his loyalists to let the will of the Venezuelan people succeed.”

In the first panel, Paula Garcia Tufró, Deputy Director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, led a discussion with the Venezuelan leaders focused on the road ahead for the interim government. Garcia Tufró opened by reaffirming the Center’s support of the interim government. She noted, “Venezuela is and will continue to be a key priority for the Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center and the Atlantic Council, and we will continue to work tirelessly to support a democratic transition in the country.”

Carlos Vecchio set the stage for the discussion by stating that this is the first time that the National Assembly has had representation abroad and reiterated his pride in the fight the National Assembly has fought, and the backing they have received. He spoke about the continued repression in Venezuela, but emphasized that the dream of freedom, coupled with the support of the international community, would get them through. He further noted the importance of continued pressure, including internal pressure from the Venezuelan people, the National Assembly, and the international community. Lastly, Vecchio laid out three clear priorities for the interim government: 1) ending the usurpation of power by Nicolas Maduro, 2) transition toward a stable democracy, and 3) a call free and fair democratic elections.

 Julio Borges framed the discussion by putting the Venezuelan case into a larger regional framework. He said, “There are two things happening in Latin America right now: we still have Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela who are playing from the old Cold War handbook, and then the rest of the free world who is following the new world rules of democracy and freedom.” Carlos Vecchio agreed with this interpretation and expressed the need for an organized fight against the Maduro regime to stabilize the country both economically and politically. He said, “The dream of freedom is so great, and we won’t stop until we reach our goal. That is where the reach of the international community is so important.”

David Smolansky built off this point by addressing the potential impact that the international community could have on the migrant and refugee crisis currently plaguing the region. He stated that “the best way to solve the crisis is for Venezuela to reestablish democracy and regain the ultimate freedoms of the rule of law, safety, and to be a country where there are job opportunities.” All three panelists expressed the need for continued support from the international community to both resolve the political crisis in Venezuela and to assuage the humanitarian and migrant crisis.

The second panel, led by Jason Marczak, began with a discussion about the ways in which the international community could have a tangible impact in Venezuela through its support of the interim government. The panel discussion began with a focus on the European Union’s position, announced at the UN Security Council meeting last Saturday, which laid out a timeline of 8 days for Maduro to call for free and fair elections within 8 days, and clearly stated that if that timeline was not met, the EU would recognize Guaidó as interim president. Ambassador O’Sullivan stated that: “We have a sense of being at a moment in history, and that is felt as much in Europe as it is here. We absolutely share the same objective here; the European Union has always believed that the situation in Venezuela is unsustainable… and we are fully supportive of the efforts of the National Assembly and Guaidó to restore true democracy and free and fair elections.”

Ambassador Silva of Chile and Ambassador Cárcenas of Paraguay reaffirmed their support for the National Assembly and for Juan Guaidó’s interim government. Ambassador Cárcenas of Paraguay expressed concern over the pain of the Venezuelan people, noting that “they are suffering, they are suffering in ways that we cannot imagine. Their bravery sets an example for all of us.” Ambassador Silva of Chile agreed, saying that beyond standing for democracy and human rights, Chile “has a debt to Venezuela” because of their support for the opposition during the Chilean dictatorship. Former Congressman Ed Royce underscored Maduro’s use of the military to control the importation of food and medicine, as well as the use of technology provided by the ZTE Corporation to control the distribution of basic goods and services based on political affiliation. He also noted that Venezuela constituted “a titanic struggle over the ideal of guaranteeing human rights,” and that “democratic countries across the world have to support this, and we support it in a bipartisan way in [the US] Congress.”

The final segment of the event consisted of a question and answer session with all panelists. In response to a question posed about the future of the economy in Venezuela, Carlos Vecchio discussed the importance of stabilizing the oil sector in a transparent way. He said, “We believe in an open market, an open economy, we believe in the private sector, we believe in the national and international sectors.” He also touched on the Guaidó administration’s proposed amnesty law to military officials who currently support the Maduro regime, reiterating that exceptions will be made for officers who commit crimes against humanity, including those who have murdered protestors in the most recent gatherings.

In response to a question on efforts by the interim government to freeze Venezuelan assets abroad, Carlos Vecchio stressed that the focus has been on preserving the assets of the Venezuelan people. He further stressed that the interim government is focused on ensuring that the process of assuming control over the country’s assets is orderly and transparent, and conducted within a legal framework. He further stressed that this process would take time and underscored that the conditions in which the interim government receives the assets is key, as is the way it manages them.

Julio Borges reiterated the interim government’s focus on addressing the humanitarian situation in Venezuela and called for the continued support of the international community in ensuring that the humanitarian aid reaches the Venezuelan people. He stressed “this is a matter of human dignity and human help,” and called for the international community to join the interim government in the fight for human health and human dignity in Venezuela.

Finally, the event ended with an emotional commentary by David Smolansky, who switched back to his native Spanish as he spoke directly to the Venezuelan people. He implored his fellow Venezuelans to imagine a time when rather than leaving, they will be returning and reuniting with their families and loved ones in the country they call home, Venezuela.