Latin America

White House prepares for a Venezuela without Nicolás Maduro

President Donald Trump is mulling whether to recognize the president of Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly as the de facto leader of Venezuela instead of President Nicolás Maduro, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

The administration took a significant step toward making the declaration Tuesday when Vice President Mike Pence called assembly leader Juan Guaidó and praised his “courageous leadership.”

Pence told Guaidó that the United States sees the National Assembly “as the only legitimate democratic body in the country.”

“Vice President Pence encouraged Mr. Guaido to build unity among political groups, and pledged continued support from the United States until democracy is restored,” according to readout of the call from the vice president’s office.

The administration initially did not plan to take major steps after Maduro’s inauguration last week, not wanting to give Maduro more attention, but ended up scrambling over the weekend to come up with a response following the outcry by international groups, Venezuelan emigrés in Miami and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who has spoken repeatedly to Trump about the matter.

“Under the Venezuelan constitution, in absence of a president, the leader of the National Assembly assumes the presidency until there’s a new election. Recognizing Juan Guaidó is the next logical step,” said Rubio, who is seen as one of the president’s principal advisers on Western Hemisphere issues. “The Trump administration has once again made it clear it stands with the people of Venezuela as they fight to restore freedom and democracy.”

Officials from the White House, National Security Council and State Department worked throughout the weekend, debating the appropriate response, which included recognizing Guaidó, or issuing controversial sanctions on the Venezuelan oil industry or what to do if Maduro leaves.

“There was a real kind of ‘OK, we dropped the ball here, by not taking this date seriously, but we need to catch up quickly and figure out what we can do,’ ” said a person involved in the discussions.

William Brownfield, who served as ambassador to Venezuela when iconic socialist leader Hugo Chávez came to power said he could see both a legal and political argument for the United States to recognize Guaidó (or whoever is the National Assembly leader at the time) as the head of state.

“If at the end of careful assessment and review, I hear from the Secretary of State transmitting the views of the president of the United States that we wish to recognize this particular individual as the president of the government of another country, I will find a way to find diplomatic precedent, legal interpretation, and as required statements of the United States code and if I have to, the United States constitution, that will indicate this is what we can do and when we will do it,” Brownfield said during a talk about Venezuela at a Washington-based think tank, the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

The Clinton administration continued to recognize Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s legitimate president during his years of exile in the United States after he was ousted in a September 1991 coup.

Fernando Cutz, who served as director for South America and acting senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, said there has long been concern about who would take leadership of the country if Maduro left. But he said now they have a plan and, for the first time, it has the needed international support.

We’re all recognizing this [the National Assembly] as the only legitimate democratic body in the country,” Cutz said. “And the constitution says that if the president is unavailable and the vice president unavailable, then essentially their speaker of the House becomes president.”

The possible move raises questions about whether diplomats appointed by Maduro should be recognized, if the National Assembly should send their own ambassador, how it would affect relations with the state-owned oil company and more, said Otto Reich, a former assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush.

Reich said the United States can’t stop talking to the “de facto government.”

“Maduro is still a force to be reckoned with,” he said, if the United States and the international community seek a peaceful change of power in Venezuela.

The Trump administration is already taking steps to cut off some international ties with the Maduro government.

On Friday, during a discussion about the humanitarian crisis in Nicaragua, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States Carlos Trujillo questioned whether the Venezuelan ambassador had the legal authority to address the OAS Permanent Council after 19 of its members voted the day before “not to recognize the legitimacy” of Maduro’s new term.

Maduro was sworn in last week for a second six-year term, but the international community has largely questioned his legitimacy following what it sees as a fraudulent election.

More than 21 former presidents and heads of government of Latin America and Spain said they recognized Guaidó as “the president in charge of Venezuela.”

Guaidó was briefly arrested on Sunday, two days after declaring that he was prepared to take over temporarily as the country’s leader.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House correspondent for the McClatchy Washington Bureau with a focus on immigration and foreign affairs. He previously covered Latin American affairs for the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. He moved to Washington in 2011 after six years at the Charlotte Observer covering immigration and working on investigative projects for The Charlotte Observer.