Carlos Vecchio, ambassador to Washington for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, speaks during a news conference outside of the USNS Comfort on Tuesday in Miami.

Carlos Vecchio, ambassador to Washington for Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, speaks during a news conference outside of the USNS Comfort on Tuesday in Miami. Lynne Sladky/AP

The Ambassador From a Government That Doesn't Exist Yet

Carlos Vecchio and the Venezuelan opposition are betting on the Trump administration to help bring Nicolás Maduro’s reign to an end.

In Washington, D.C., Juan Guaidó and his representatives are feted as Venezuela’s only true leaders. But that’s far less of a reality in Caracas, where Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains entrenched in power.

Guaidó, who has rocketed from obscurity to renown in mere months, is now recognized as Venezuela’s interim president by more than 50 countries. It’s the culmination of a long, fitful effort by the country’s motley opposition—many of whom are presently imprisoned, in hiding, or in exile—to resist the authoritarian turn Maduro has taken since the death of his predecessor, the revolutionary socialist Hugo Chávez, in 2013.

Speaking with Guaidó’s emissary to the United States, I asked whether it was strange for him to think that if he hadn’t been forced into exile, he might be in Guaidó’s position right now.

“No. I am where I am,” Carlos Vecchio responded during one of two interviews with me, in May and June. He once planned to run for a seat in the legislature, and briefly took the reins of the Popular Will Party when its leader, Leopoldo López, was jailed in 2014. But he soon found himself evading a warrant for his own arrest by fleeing to Florida. Five years after he popped up on YouTube in a goatee and T-shirt during a 100-day sojourn underground, reading aloud from an undisclosed location a political manifesto written by López, the man sitting before me looked very much the dapper D.C. diplomat, in a dark suit and red tie, clean-shaven, hair gelled.

“No. I haven’t thought about it,” Vecchio reiterated. “Juan Guaidó has done a terrific job. He’s a great leader.”

One reason the 35-year-old Guaidó has his current position is that, when it was Popular Will’s turn to assume the rotating leadership of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, the most senior members of his party were all sidelined. In January, Maduro began another term after winning an election widely considered to have been rigged. As the head of Venezuela’s only democratically elected institution, Guaidó declared himself a caretaker president. The United States and dozens of its allies promptly shifted their diplomatic recognition to Guaidó, who appointed Vecchio as his man in Washington—tasked with coordinating the international campaign to remove Maduro from power.

Vecchio’s core challenge is to turn progress in Washington into transformative political change in Caracas. Following Guaidó’s unsuccessful attempt on April 30 to turn Maduro’s top officials against him, his representatives abroad are seeking to dramatically ratchet up diplomatic and economic pressure on the Maduro government, including through not-so-veiled threats of foreign military intervention. And there’s a reason these efforts are concentrated in Washington: No country is more crucial to whether this strategy will work than the United States.

Guaidó’s diplomats insist that from the decision to put forward a transitional president to the question of whether to use force against Maduro, Venezuelans are determining their own destiny. Yet they’re also staking that destiny on faith that America has their back.

Vecchio was unequivocal about the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to the cause. He recalled a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence: “He told me, ‘Carlos, the U.S. will stand with you until you recover your democracy,’ and I trusted him. I trust him. And I trust Trump,” said Vecchio, who’s spoken with the U.S. president three times. “You know why? I said to him, ‘You are not defending only Venezuelan rights. You are defending universal principles and values set by your Founding Fathers, which have made this country a great nation.’”

The Trump administration’s messaging, however, has been more equivocal. “Trump doesn’t want a war” in Venezuela, and National Security Adviser John Bolton appears to be “trying a rhetorical regime-change approach—that if you just yell loud enough and threaten enough, maybe the regime will collapse,” Fernando Cutz, a former director for South America on Trump’s National Security Council, told me. (Bolton’s bailiwick is the whole world, but since April 30, 60 percent of his tweets have been Venezuela-related.)

If the Trump administration isn’t prepared to send troops to the country, its approach could swing to the other extreme: “Stop talking about Venezuela and pretend like it never happened,” Cutz said. For now the United States is betting that escalating sanctions, including a de facto oil embargo, will eventually dislodge Maduro.

“The question is: If this whole thing ‘fails,’ how does the U.S. and these other 56 countries [that have recognized Guaidó] back out?” he asked. “What might happen ... is we’ll have a government in exile in the United States, in D.C. essentially.”

When Vecchio, who is from the small Venezuelan town of Caripe and who attended graduate school at Georgetown and Harvard, first went into exile, “he was like a lone ranger,” his political adviser, Francisco Márquez, told me.

By 2018, however, Vecchio was jetting around Europe and the Americas with other exiled Venezuelan opposition leaders, meeting with officials such as Penceand French President Emmanuel Macron and urging them to declare Maduro’s reelection illegitimate.

Vecchio is now known around Washington as a full-fledged ambassador. He seems to pop up everywhere in D.C., Waldo-like. There he is at the steps of the Capitol, praising the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for its support. There he is at a State Department conference on the Americas, posing for a picture with the new, pro-Guaidó president of El Salvador. There he is at a banquet accepting an award on behalf of the Venezuelan people, proclaiming “Viva Venezuela libre!” as Washington luminaries shower him with a 30-second standing ovation.

U.S. officials “joke with us that one of the few bipartisan games in town is Venezuela,” Márquez said. Even Arnold & Porter, a D.C. lobbying firm that as recently as January was advising the Maduro government, now reps Guaidó. The BGR Group agreed to do pro bono work for Guaidó to “promote the cause of freedom and democracy in Venezuela.”

Vecchio recently overcame one major obstacle to solidifying Guaidó’s bona fides in Washington by gaining control of the Venezuelan embassy. In May, U.S. law enforcement evicted members of the anti-war organization Code Pink, who along with allied groups had occupied the building at the Maduro government’s invitation.

When I stopped by the embassy on the day Guaidó officials took it over, I felt as if I had arrived on the set of a play about revolution in Venezuela. The Venezuelan military attaché to the United States, who had defected from Maduro in January, was decked out in full military dress. Márquez, Vecchio’s adviser, sprinted by shouting, “It’s finally ours!” Penned in behind police barricades, members of Code Pink and its affiliates chanted, “Vecchio is a fake! How many coups does it take?” Vecchio’s supporters, many of them Venezuelan expats, spilled into the Georgetown street where the embassy is located, past perplexed tourists and Lyft drivers caught in the geopolitical cross fire. They hugged one another, captured the moment on their phones, and waved Venezuelan flags as they sang the national anthem (“Glory to the brave people, who threw off the yoke”).

Guaidó’s diplomats cast the struggle for the embassy as a microcosm of their larger mission. Vecchio shared footage from a walk-through of the embassy: mounds of trash, exposed wires, overturned furniture. “@NicolasMaduro is destruction and corruption,” he wrote on Twitter. “A country of progress for all will soon be reborn.”

While the folks with guns are on Guaidó’s side in the United States, however, Maduro has retained a monopoly on the use of force in Venezuela. The same week Vecchio assumed authority over the embassy, Maduro’s security forces temporarily blocked opposition lawmakers from entering the National Assembly, the one institution they currently control in the country.

And Vecchio’s team must not only establish a presence in the embassy, but also make its presence felt in the U.S. capital, where the 2020 presidential election and military tensions with Iran are taking up a lot of oxygen. (When Venezuela does surface in political debates, it’s often cited by Trump and his supporters as a cautionary tale for what will happen in the United States if Democrats implement their “socialist” agenda.)

A few blocks from where Vecchio, behind a podium with the seal of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, heralded the end of the “usurpation” at the embassy and vowed to next liberate the presidential palace of Miraflores, I came across Washingtonians lounging with frozen Moscow mules at a patio bar along the Potomac River. Listening to Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” on a placid spring evening, they seemed to have no clue that steps away from them, Vecchio was battling for the soul of his country.

Vecchio and his advisers tend to operate in Washington like the proverbial duck, gliding along the water’s surface while paddling incessantly below to stay afloat.

“What we’re trying to do is basically build a parachute as we are going down,” Márquez said. “We have to make sure that the regime breaks, but we also have to prepare [for] what to do when that dam breaks.”

Since laying claim to the embassy, Vecchio’s team has launched a registry for Venezuelans living in the United States to record their personal information and consular needs. The Trump administration has agreed to recognize the validity of Venezuelan passports for five years after their expiration date. These are small steps, however, compared with securing long-term economic assistance to rebuild a collapsing country.

In Venezuela, the signs of progress are even more elusive. Since the abortive April 30 uprising, Maduro has lost the allegiance of the head of his intelligence service. But he still has the support of other top officials who were allegedly negotiating (possibly in bad faith) the terms of a political transition with the Guaidó camp. And Venezuela’s intelligence service, with a new Maduro loyalist in charge, has put the National Assembly’s vice president in prison as part of a broader crackdown on the opposition.

Vecchio told me that military and civilian members of Maduro’s inner circle are still discussing the president’s exit with Guaidó officials, but declined to name names. He said the middle and lower tiers of the Venezuelan armed forces back Guaidó, but agreed when I pointed out that they are prevented from breaking ranks by their fear that Cuban intelligence agents allied with Maduro are watching their every move. He pointed to the fact that Guaidó hasn’t been detained as evidence that Maduro’s grip on power is weakening.

He also dismissed the idea that Guaidó’s diplomats are making more headway in Washington than their colleagues are in Caracas—once cutting me off when I mentioned how much support he had cultivated in the United States to emphasize that Guaidó’s main support base is in Venezuela itself. A gregarious guy who bids you farewell with a kind of dap, Vecchio brims with confidence about his cause. (He’s fond of the mantra seguimos avanzando, or “We continue advancing.”) Still, he conceded to me that “if nothing happens inside Venezuela, nothing’s going to happen outside Venezuela.”

Incremental advances, moreover, are no match for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Venezuela. Desperation is outpacing diplomacy, a stark reality that Guaidó supporters blame on Maduro but that critics say U.S. sanctions are precipitating, perhaps by design. When we spoke earlier in June, Vecchio recounted a call he’d recently received from Guaidó, who mentioned a spiraling electricity crisis, rampant store closures, and huge lines for fuel. “We could have a social explosion,” said Vecchio, potentially sending millions more fleeing to nearby nations on top of the 4 million Venezuelans who have already left the country.

Ask Vecchio about the prospect of using force to oust Maduro, and he’ll stress that Guaidó’s position is clear: The goal is “a peaceful solution in Venezuela.” Yet six months into Guaidó’s self-declared presidency, the opposition nevertheless appears to be exploring military intervention. “There’s a real frustration kicking in,” Cutz said. “I think there’s starting to be a belief within some of the opposition that this won’t be resolved peacefully, that this is going to require some sort of more aggressive approach.”

Last month Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, which counts Venezuela as a member and recognizes Guaidó, made the (short-on-specifics) case for resorting to a “relative use of force” in Venezuela. His rationale was the international principle of “responsibility to protect,” developed after the Rwandan genocide and Srebrenica massacre of the mid-1990s. Vecchio, whose book on the fight for freedom in Venezuela has a prologue by Almagro, similarly told me that Guaidó “is willing to explore any other option in order to stop the suffering of Venezuelans,” including “a multilateral decision under the principle of responsibility to protect.”

Vecchio, who like most of Guaidó’s diplomats in D.C. is a lawyer by training, then made a lawyerly argument. Should a conflict come, he suggested, his side won’t have started it. “The only person who has declared a war is Maduro,” aided by Cuban forces, Russian military personnel, and Colombian militant groups, he said. The country, he maintained, is suffering the consequences of war without it being formally declared—whether those consequences are measured by an economic contraction worse than the U.S. Great Depression, an inflation rateforecasted to reach 10 million percent in 2019, a poverty rate of 94 percent, or dire shortages of food and medicine.

Gustavo Tarre, Guaidó’s ambassador to the OAS, told me he doubted he’d be able to muster a majority of votes in the regional body’s 34-member Permanent Council for an OAS-authorized military operation, including from the region’s top military powers, Brazil and Colombia.

As we sat in his narrow, spartan office, surrounded by white walls that were empty save for a framed portrait of Venezuela’s founding father, Simón Bolívar, Tarre said that when Guaidó called him in January and asked him to serve as an ambassador, “I thought that the problem in Venezuela was going to be solved in weeks or in a short number of months, and we are still there in the same situation now.”

I presented Tarre with a thought experiment: Suppose Bolton were to inform him that he’d spoken with OAS allies and that they were on board for a multinational military operation. Would he accept the offer?

“Of course,” responded Tarre, who went into exile the same year as Vecchio after the government accused him of plotting to assassinate the president. (Tarre denies the charge.) “If all the countries are willing to help us, why not accept?”

He argued that the mere prospect of an imminent military intervention would be enough to compel the Venezuelan military to turn on Maduro. “If this possibility is there, the Venezuelan armed forces are going to think, Are we going to war with a neighbor in order to protect Maduro? Who is willing to die for Maduro? I think nobody.”

Of course, Venezuela’s military leaders have so far stuck with Maduro through months of U.S. military threats. And with the exception of über-hawks like Lindsey Graham, there seems to be nearly no appetite in Washington to actually use military force. If a “military option” is indeed “on the table,” as Trump-administration officials like to say, it’s wedged in a corner and unlikely to shake loose absent some seismic development.

In May, as Tarre tells it, Vecchio requested a meeting in Florida with the U.S. military’s Southern Command, whose area of responsibility includes South America, to clarify what the commander Craig Faller had meant by tweeting that he was ready at Guaidó’s invitation to discuss ways to support Venezuelan military leaders who “restore constitutional order.” But the appointment soon morphed into a gathering in Washington of Vecchio; Tarre; the State Department’s Venezuela envoy, Elliott Abrams; and a top Defense Department official on Latin America, Sergio de la Peña. What Tarre learned from the meeting is that “the U.S. priority is for diplomatic and economic sanctions” against the Maduro government (and more recently against the Cuban government as well). “I don’t think they are thinking of [the military] option right now. But it’s not ruled out. The same as the Guaidó government.”

Not only is there no legal justification for the Trump administration to go to war in Venezuela without congressional approval, which probably wouldn’t be forthcoming, but Southern Command would need to reposition troops from other theaters like the Middle East, Cutz observed. “This process would take weeks, if not months, and we’d all see it coming from literally a thousand miles away,” he said. “There’s no movement in that direction.”

For now, we’re witnessing a test of what’s stronger: the righteous indignation of a fourth of the world’s countries, including many of its leading democracies, or the reactionary might of the Venezuelan military, paramilitary groups, Cuban security forces, and a sprinkling of Russian military personnel.

“Having me here, sitting before you as an ambassador,” Vecchio marveled at one point during our conversations, noting that Guaidó now controls not just the embassy but also CITGO, the U.S. arm of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. “I think this will be a case study in [universities] on international law. We now have U.S. courts recognizing Juan Guaidó as the only legal authority before the U.S. government representing Venezuela. We have millions of Venezuelans across the globe helping us to restore democracy. This is a unique process.”

He and his colleagues often make this point when asked whether the events of April 30 marked a failure of their movement. “Of course, the objective has not been achieved, but you have to look at the trend here,” Márquez said. As recently as last December, “no one was giving a shot to President Guaidó.”

In the near future, the primary mission for Guaidó’s diplomats is to persuade Latin American and European countries that have recognized Guaidó to follow through on their diplomatic solidarity with actions such as targeted financial sanctions and travel restrictions against Maduro and other top officials. (The European Union has only sanctioned 18 individuals in Venezuela, compared with the more than 100 who have been sanctioned by the United States.)

Talks in Norway between representatives of Maduro and Guaidó recently ended in no deal, and both sides appear reluctant to meet again. When I asked in June whether Guaidó would be willing to meet directly with Maduro, Vecchio said that the interim president would be. But the precondition for such a negotiation was steep: Maduro would have to agree to relinquish power and facilitate a political transition through a free election.

“If the price that we need to pay is having a conversation with Maduro to put an end [to] the dictatorship, I would say that Juan Guaidó would be willing to do that,” Vecchio told me.

Vecchio, for his part, remains undaunted. He has, in fact, thought about the precise way he will return to the nation where he spent the first 45 years of his life and which he says he left in tears: via the Simón Bolívar bridge, which millions of Venezuelans have crossed in recent years as they fled their country for neighboring Colombia. He said he hopes his ambassadorship “will be the shortest position that I [have] ever had, because I want to just come back to my country.”