White House

Pence welcomes new top Venezuelan diplomat to White House

Vice President Mike Pence welcomed a new top diplomat from Venezuela to the White House Tuesday as part of the Trump administration’s strategy to help install new leadership in the South American country.

Pence met for nearly an hour with the opposition government’s U.S. representative, Carlos Alfredo Vecchio, in the Roosevelt Room Tuesday to discuss common goals and reaffirm the administration’s support for Juan Guaidó, the National Assembly leader whom the U.S. and other countries now consider Venezuela’s interim president.

Vecchio, who quoted Abraham Lincoln when thanking Pence for the administration’s continued support, told reporters that the new Guaidó government is working to put in place a transitional government and calling for new elections. But he also called on the United States and other democratic allies for continued support to help “liberate Venezuela,” which he said had been colonized by the Cuban government.

“We were so clear that this fight is not about ideology,” Vecchio said. “This is a fight between democracy and dictatorship. This is a fight between a dictatorship which is totally controlled by the Cuban regime against the free world. “

The United States has been increasing pressure on Cuba, arguing that the Havana government has been propping up Maduro, particularly with intelligence and counterintelligence. Vecchio was echoing those claims.

Venezuela sits on the world’s largest oil reserves, but the once-wealthy nation under Maduro’s leadership has plummeted into a deepening economic crisis amid rising inflation.

During a Senate hearing Tuesday on various world threats, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats called Venezuela a danger to U.S. interests. He said the government expects the attempts by Cuba, Russia, and China “to prop up the Maduro government’s security or financing will lead to additional efforts to exploit the situation and exchange for access, mostly to Venezuelan oil.”

“Venezuela is at a cross-roads as its economy faces further cratering and political leaders vie for control, all of which are likely to further contribute to the unprecedented migration of Venezuelans,” Coats said.

Vecchio is a Venezuelan lawyer and politician who this week was recognized by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the new Chargé d’Affaires of the Government of Venezuela. Vecchio went to graduate school at Georgetown University and at Harvard, where he was a Fulbright scholar at the Kennedy School of Government.

Pence was joined by top officials leading efforts on Venezuela, including Elliot Abrams, the new special envoy to Venezuela, Mauricio Claver-Carone, senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security council and Landon Loomis, special advisor to the vice president for Western Hemisphere and global economics.

Pence and Vecchio have spoken several times, including meeting during last year’s Summit of the Americas in Peru where Pence sat down with Vecchio and other opposition leaders to hear about the crisis in Venezuela.

“Mr. Vecchio will have authority over diplomatic affairs in the United States on behalf of Venezuela,” a White House official said. “The vice president looks forward to continue working closely with the interim government, to build strong diplomatic ties, and reinforce the administration’s steadfast effort to restore democracy in Venezuela.”

Vecchio, a co-founder of the party Voluntad Popular, was a top lieutenant of the opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez. After Lopez was imprisoned in 2014, Vecchio was indicted and went into exile in Florida.

In August 2017, Vecchio also attended Pence’s listening session in Miami with other Venezuelan exiles and dissidents.

The Trump administration has long been concerned about who would take leadership of the country if Maduro was removed. But those close to the White House say recognizing Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of a new government allows the United States and allies to divert key finances and other resources to help with a transition.

On Monday, the administration blocked all exports, imports and financial dealings with the Venezuelan oil sector, except those explicitly permitted by Treasury Department licenses.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has repeatedly accused the United States of leading a coup against his government and said Guaidó and his international supporters are political puppets of the United States.

But Maduro has backed off as pressure has mounted against him. After first announcing last week that he was closing Venezuela’s embassy and all consulates in the United State, Maduro representatives later signed an agreement allowing all U.S. diplomatic personnel to remain with all the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention.

The Trump administration, which helped build international pressure against the Maduro government, has called on allies to “pick a side” on Venezuela and urged countries to cut financial ties to the Maduro government.

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.