Venezuelan opposition envoy quits as anti-Maduro coalition frays

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s diplomatic envoy to the UK has resigned from her post in the latest sign of trouble for the fractious western-backed coalition trying to unseat socialist President Nicolás Maduro.

Vanessa Neumann told the Financial Times she had quit because of doubts within the opposition over Mr Guaidó’s future, concerns over strategy and dismay over bureaucratic delays in Washington to the release of frozen Venezuelan government funds held in the US to the opposition.

“The fight against Maduro will continue — and I will personally continue that fight,” Ms Neumann said. She said she admired Mr Guaidó’s courage for carrying on the fight inside Venezuela, but added: “The future of Guaidó’s leadership is unclear within the opposition.”

Venezuela’s opposition is widely expected to lose control of the country’s sole remaining democratically elected body, the National Assembly, in elections this weekend. Ms Neumann said some opposition figures wanted to rotate the leadership after that.

Isadora Zubillaga, Mr Guaidó’s chief European representative, thanked Ms Neumann for her work, saying she had been “a great collaborator and a great mind behind several of the strategies to stop Maduro from committing more crimes against humanity”.

She described her as having been part of “an amazing team of qualified Venezuelans working without compensation for the freedom of our country”.

A former community leader, Mr Guaidó burst on to the world stage in January last year after the US led dozens of countries in recognising the National Assembly president as Venezuela’s legitimate interim leader. The argument was that Mr Maduro had forfeited a claim to the presidency because he won a rigged election.

That policy was designed to trigger rapid regime change. But almost two years later, Mr Maduro remains entrenched in power, presiding over a ruined economy and the exodus of 5m refugees. Backing from Russia, China, Iran and Cuba and ever-tighter controls have helped him survive increasingly tough US and EU economic sanctions.

The Venezuelan opposition has grown anxious that some of its international backers may rethink their recognition of Mr Guaidó as interim president after he loses control of the assembly. The newly elected assembly will choose its leader in early January. 

“It’s tragic,” Ms Neumann said. “Two years on and the Venezuelan people are suffering more than ever. The people who have screwed this up are getting away with it, but the tragedy is written on the backs of 32m Venezuelans.”

Ms Neumann said she was planning to return to the private sector. During her tenure as Mr Guaidó’s envoy to London she secured some successes, including arranging a face-to-face meeting for the Venezuelan opposition leader with Boris Johnson, the UK’s prime minister, at the start of the year and winning the first round of a court battle over control of almost $2bn of Venezuelan gold held at the Bank of England. 

Her work was complicated by the UK government’s insistence on continuing to maintain diplomatic relations with the Maduro government, however, meaning she could not win full diplomatic accreditation or use of the Venezuelan embassy in London.

Ms Neumann pointed the finger at the US Treasury’s sanctions office Ofac, which she said had procrastinated for so long over releasing frozen funds to the Guaidó opposition for legal costs that the court battle was in danger of being lost.

A British appeal court last month overturned an initial judgment in favour of the Venezuelan opposition and referred the matter to a commercial court, while ordering the opposition to pay £400,000 of interim costs to Mr Maduro’s lawyers. The opposition has told the court it does not have the money to pay because of Ofac delays in releasing funds. 

“The fumbling has literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Ms Neumann said.

Elliott Abrams, the US state department’s special envoy for Venezuela and Iran, said he was “unaware of any licences being held up at Ofac”.

“Ofac is very careful, as we are at the state department, so nothing happens overnight, but just about everything has been approved,” he said.

Ofac did not immediately return a request for comment.

Some of Mr Guaidó’s envoys abroad have complained that they are effectively working for free and have not received payment they were expecting from US state sources. Mr Abrams did say that “a lot of back pay is owed” to the Venezuelan opposition’s overseas envoys and to National Assembly members but said “I think all that will happen before the end of the year”.

Henrique Capriles, a leading member of the opposition, broke with many of his colleagues in September and called for participation in the December election, criticising Mr Guaidó’s team for “playing at government on the internet”.

Mr Abrams insisted there was consensus within the opposition that Mr Guaidó should remain interim president for now, though he added that if Mr Maduro was still in power in a year’s time, “then it’s time for a rotation”. A leadership change is also imminent in Washington, with Joe Biden set to replace Donald Trump in the White House in mid-January.

Mr Guaidó’s once-high opinion poll ratings have declined sharply over the past year as Venezuelans express frustration at the continuing political deadlock. A majority now say they would not vote either for him or for Mr Maduro.

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