Guaido SOTU

Venezuelan Opposition Leader Guaidó Honored by Trump at State of the Union

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó was honored at President Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday night after receiving an invite from the White House.

The invite to the State of the Union gives Guaidó, the Venezuelan National Assembly leader and fierce critic of contested Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a big political bump as he seeks to rally international support for his bid to oust his country’s strongman leader.

Before receiving a thunderous applause from the crowd of lawmakers and other dignitaries gathered on the House floor, Trump praised Guaidó — calling him Venezuela’s “true leader” and offering U.S. support in his fight.

“Mr. President please take this message back that all Americans are united with Venezuelans in their righteous battle for freedom,” Trump said to Guaidó.

Guaidó’s appearance in Congress also comes as he is wrapping up a lengthy world tour in support of his cause following a failed overthrow of the Maduro regime last year. Guaidó is recognized by almost 60 countries – including the U.S. – as Venezuelan’s legitimate leader but has so far been unsuccessful in his attempts to actually remove Maduro from office.

Earlier, the White House said Ivan Simonovis, the former police chief in Caracas who was imprisoned in 2004 and held in captivity for nearly 15 years, also would be a guest. Simonovis was sentenced to 30 years in prison on what he considered trumped-up charges of ordering police to fire on pro-government demonstrators during a coup against then-President Hugo Chávez.

Simonovis, Venezuela’s most famous SWAT cop, escaped last year and was brought to the United States. His detention has been a rallying cry of the opposition that considered Maduro’s 2018 election a fraud and blamed his socialist policies for the nation’s crisis, which is driving mass migration and threatening the region’s stability.

Guaidó’s appearance at the State of the Union also comes amid speculation that Trump has voiced concerns in recent months about Guaidó’s chances of actually replacing Maduro as Venezuela’s leader. Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials met in December to reexamine their approach in pushing for democracy in the South American nation.

Guaidó, however, has developed deep ties with a number of Republican lawmakers in Congress – most notably Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Florida is home to the largest Venezuelan immigrant population in the U.S. and is seen as a hotbed for anti-Maduro activism much as it has historically been for Cubans opposed to the Castro regime.

“Excited to see [Juan Guaidó] tonight at the #SOTU!” Scott tweeted on Tuesday. “Thank you [Donald Trump] for your continued commitment to the brave people of #Venezuela in their fight for freedom and democracy.”

Scott was among those on stage with Guaidó in Miami over the weekend as well as several Venezuelan lawmakers now living in exile. Rubio said on Twitter that he would be meeting with Guaidó.

An estimated 3,500 people crowded into a Miami convention center to hear Guaidó, the most promising opposition political figure to surface in years with the chance of ending two decades of rule launched by the late President Hugo Chávez. Guaidó urged the crowd to remain unified and to resist, despite living away from Venezuela.

Home to the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela was for decades an economic leader in the western hemisphere and, despite a massive gap between rich and poor, was a major destination for neighboring Colombians and other Latin Americans fleeing their less prosperous and more troubled homelands.

But in 1999 with the rise to power of Hugo Chávez – whose social and economic reforms initially endeared him to the poor but also set up an unsustainable system of state spending – Venezuela’s economy began to creep toward a crisis. The situation has been exacerbated by Maduro, Chávez’s successor, who took power in 2013, and by a plunge in global oil prices in 2015.

Venezuela has been gripped by widespread malnutrition, disease and violence, and critics accuse Maduro of unfairly winning an election last year for a second six-year term by banning his popular rivals from running and jailing others.

Today, an estimated 4.5 million Venezuelans have emigrated from the country of 30 million, leaving behind crumbling infrastructure, broken hospitals, power failures and gasoline shortages with mile-long lines at filling stations across much of the South American nation.

Guaidó, 36, rose to prominence a year ago, named leader of the opposition-led National Assembly. In this position he claimed presidential powers, vowing to oust Maduro and reverse the political and social crisis.

He won backing from the U.S. and nearly 60 nations that considered Maduro’s 2018 election a fraud and blamed his socialist policies for the crisis that’s driving mass migration and threatening the region’s stability.

Maduro, however, has maintained power with firm backing of the military and key foreign allies, including Russia, China, Cuba and Turkey. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is expected to visit Caracas in the coming days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 

 

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