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US, Russia clash at United Nations over crisis in Venezuela and who is legitimate president

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo addresses the media and takes questions following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran. at the United Nations, in New York City on December 12, 2018. (Ron Przysucha/State Department)

The United States on Saturday urged the U.N. Security Council to recognize a Venezuelan opposition leader as the country’s president to replace authoritarian leader Nicholas Maduro, but Russia quickly voiced stiff opposition to the move.

At an emergency session called by the United States, Moscow and Washington clashed openly over what the Trump administration characterized as a return to democracy, and Russia labeled an illegal coup that meddled in a sovereign nation’s domestic affairs.

“The time is now to support the Venezuelan people, recognize the new democratic government led by interim President [Juan] Guaido, and end this nightmare,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told the body in New York. “No excuses.”

Pompeo emphasized the humanitarian catastrophe that Venezuela is suffering, blaming Maduro and his looting of government coffers for plunging Venezuelans into abject poverty, starvation and death.

He then segued into a core concern for the Trump administration: the financial, political and military support the Maduro government receives from Russia, China and, especially, Cuba.

“It’s not a surprise that those who rule without democracy in their own countries are trying to prop up Maduro while he is in dire straits,” Pompeo said.

Saturday’s session was not aimed at producing a resolution, since Russia would likely veto, but to air the issue and measure support for one side or the other.

The Trump administration recognized the 35-year-old Guaido on Wednesday, when he proclaimed himself interim president because of his role as head of the National Assembly, and as tens of thousands of Venezuelans filled the streets of Caracas in protest of Maduro. The U.S. immediately granted the Guaido forces $20 million in humanitarian aid in an attempt to shore up its claim on power.

Pompeo called for other members of the council to back Guaido as interim president while Venezuela moves through a transition government to new, free elections. The last elections, last year, which gave Maduro a second six-year term, were regarded as a sham by most international observers.

“Now, it is time for every other nation to pick a side,” Pompeo said. “No more delays; no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”

The U.S. position received support of varying degrees from about half a dozen of the council’s 15 countries, including France and Germany, which said they would recognize Guaido unless Maduro calls new elections within eight days. In addition to Russia, at least three other countries were strongly opposed; several abstained. No formal resolution was drafted.

Venezuela., which is not a member of the Security Council, was represented in the session by Maduro’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, who condemned what he cited as Washington’s long history of arrogant interventionism.

“I cannot say the United States was behind this coup,” Arreaza said. “No. The United States was not behind but at the forefront of the coup! In the vanguard! Giving the orders!”

Earlier in the day, an effort by the U.S. to sponsor a joint “presidential statement” of support for Guaido was blocked by Russia and China, Pompeo said.

And Russia then sought to stop Saturday’s session before it started, saying Venezuela’s internal politics were not a rightful topic for the Security Council to review. The Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vassily Nebenzia, said that doing so was a “gross abuse” of Security Council members’ power in support of the “shameless and aggressive actions of the United States and its allies.”

Speaking later in the full Security Council session, Nebenzia invoked U.S. attempts to control politics in Latin America through the generations as proof of Washington’s true goals now: regime change as a “favorite game,” he said.

Pompeo stared icily at Nebenzia as he spoke.

The administration sought to underscore the seriousness with which it regards the Venezuela crisis by dispatching Pompeo to Saturday’s meeting. The secretary only rarely makes such an appearance, although the United States is without an ambassador to the U.N. following the resignation of Nikki Haley at the end of last year.

Pompeo was accompanied by his newly appointed special envoy for Venezuela, veteran U.S. diplomatic hawk Elliott Abrams.

Abrams, who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, was an unusual choice. His efforts to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua in the 1980s ultimately failed and landed him in a criminal case as part of the notorious Iran-Contra scandal that exposed illicit U.S. activities. Abrams pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress.

Abrams debuted his new role Saturday, speaking toward the end of the session after Pompeo had departed. He lashed out at Arreaza and the Russians for referring to countries who support the U.S. as “satellites.” The true satellite here, Abrams said, “is Venezuela. … A satellite of Cuba.”

In his earlier comments, Pompeo also demanded protection under international conventions for U.S. diplomats remaining in Caracas. Maduro ordered them to leave by Sunday, but the State Department has only withdrawn non-essential personnel. Several dozen diplomats are thought to remain and could potentially face danger or harassment from Maduro loyalists.

“Do not test the United States on our resolve to protect our people,” Pompeo said.


© 2019 the Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.