Efforts by Venezuelan parliamentary leader Juan Guaido to garner European support to unseat president Nicolas Maduro revealed divisions among EU governments as the United States ramped up pressures on Venezuela last week.
It was Guaido’s first European visit since he proclaimed himself Venezuela’s acting president a year ago with support from the United States and most Latin American countries, which have backed repeated uprisings that failed to gain support from Venezuela’s military.
Nicolas Maduro’s leftist government has managed to remain in power with security assistance from Cuba, Russia and Iran, according to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Guaido at an Anti-Terrorist Summit in Colombia from where he flew to Europe.
While most EU member states have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president and denounced Maduro’s human rights violations, they have refrained from implementing the type of wider sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump who has left open the use of military force.
A U.S. airborne unit has conducted joint exercises with Colombian forces along a border region with Venezuela over recent days, according to the Pentagon. Venezuela’s government claims to have intercepted a U.S. warship near its coast.
Since leaving Venezuela, Guaido’s offices in Caracas have been raided and several of his top aides arrested by Venezuelan police officials, who accuse him of violating restrictions they imposed on his travel.
Guaido urged tougher measures against Maduro in personal meetings with European leaders and in an address to the annual world community conference in Davos, Switzerland.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and prime ministers from the Netherlands, Austria and Greece talked briefly with Guaido on the sidelines of the Davos conference, where his staff set up a workshop to promote Venezuela’s reconstruction.
"We are confronted with an international criminal conglomerate and we can’t fight it alone,” he told the conference. “We need tools from the international community to bring pressure on the regime from various centers,” he said.
Guaido specifically asked officials and bankers gathered in Davos to block Venezuela’s international trade in gold extracted from mines which, he said, Maduro has turned over to key army generals to secure their loyalty.
Guaido’s tour got off to a promising start with a surprise welcome from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who received him under the glow of cameras at 10 Downing Street. French President Emmanuel Macron met him more privately at the Elysee Palace.
But momentum was lost in Spain, where Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez failed to meet Guaido citing scheduling problems. He instead sent a newly appointed foreign minister to see him away from government premises.
The awkwardness was exacerbated by revelations that a chief Spanish minister had secretly met Maduro’s vice president, Delcy Rodriguez, when she stopped at Madrid’s airport on her way to Turkey some days earlier.
Conservative opposition leaders accused the government of violating existing EU sanctions that include entry restrictions of Maduro’s top officials. The U.S. State Department also issued a strong protest.
Spain is especially important to Venezuela because of its deep economic, political and cultural ties to its former colony. Venezuela’s political leverage has grown recently with the inclusion of members of the far-left party Podemos in Sanchez’s cabinet.
Sanchez has advocated a “dialogue” to resolve Venezuela’s crisis and his ex-foreign minister Josep Borrell, who is now EU chief of external affairs, has worked to promote negotiations with Maduro.
An EU communique following a meeting between Guaido and Borrell in Brussels said the two “have signaled the urgent necessity to find a common focus as much between the Venezuelan actors as with the international community which could lead to a significant political process.”
Guaido said in Madrid that EU-backed mediation efforts had been “degraded by the dictatorship” in Caracas, which was using them to “gain time.”