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Venezuela Opposition Leader Juan Guaidó Meets With President Trump At White House


It's been a heady 24 hours for Juan Guaido, the man leading the bid to topple Venezuela's socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro. Guaido not only had a seat in Congress for President Trump's State of the Union address last night, he was also afforded the honor of a White House meeting this afternoon. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: White House officials say this visit to Washington was in the works for a couple of weeks. It was meant to be a dramatic show of support from President Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaido. Mr. President, please stand...

KELEMEN: Democrats and Republicans gave him a standing ovation last night in one of the rare moments of bipartisanship.


TRUMP: Please take this message back that all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom.

KELEMEN: Juan Guaido, Venezuela's National Assembly leader, declared himself the country's interim president over a year ago as protests mounted against the Maduro government. And though he has the backing of dozens of nations, Guaido still does not have any levers of power inside the country. He even had a hard time getting into the National Assembly building last month when Maduro tried to install a new leader. The next big test is whether he'll be able to return home, says Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center.

CYNTHIA ARNSON: I think he will be able to sneak into the country one way or another. I think that the Maduro regime would be very foolish to try to arrest him, although they did go through his headquarters while he was out of the country. There have been - there has been increased repression in Venezuela against members of the opposition.

KELEMEN: The U.S. has argued that Maduro has led the country to ruin. Millions of Venezuelans have fled, and there's widespread hunger and poverty. U.S. sanctions are designed to force him out of power, but Arnson says Maduro has modified his socialist policies to take the pressure off.

ARNSON: Everything that we've seen over the past year shows that Maduro has been able to consolidate his position. The new opening of the economy, the lifting of import controls, the greater freedom given to the private sector is a demonstration that he is willing to adapt.

KELEMEN: The White House says it is not planning any negotiations with the Maduro government and will stick with its maximum pressure campaign. National security adviser Robert O'Brien is calling on Russia and other backers of the Maduro government to, in his words, knock it off.


ROBERT O'BRIEN: The reason that Venezuela does not have a democracy and is not free is because Cuba, Russia and China are propping up a dictator who does not have the support of his people, who is illegitimate and who is exercising a tyranny over the people of Venezuela.

KELEMEN: Speaking to a gathering of international diplomats today, O'Brien says the U.S. is taking a close look at Russia's oil company Rosneft and its dealings in Venezuela. He's suggesting that the U.S. could impose more sanctions to try to disrupt that, but Russia's foreign minister is planning to visit Venezuela later this week to show support for Maduro.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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