Hailed by the Financial Times as “London’s most unconventional diplomat,” former Diplomat magazine contributor Dr Vanessa Neumann writes about her return to London and her unique situation as Juan Guaidó’s Official Representative to the UK and Republic of Ireland
“Well, it certainly hasn’t been boring,” is my usual answer when asked what my time as a diplomat in London has been like.
My mission, which I chose to accept, was roughly this: Your country is dying. Go to London and wrangle the Brits to get them to help us achieve freedom – but wait: you have no home, no team, no briefs, no budget, and no immunity or visa. Ok, go! Hurry! Hurry! Your country is dying.
And dying they are; over two-thirds of Venezuelans cannot find enough to eat. Most mothers wake up every morning and have to decide which of their children will eat that day, because she can’t feed them all. Would you be able to make that choice? One million children have been left behind by parents who have gone to find a living wage elsewhere. Nicolás Maduro has ordered the assassination of over 18,000 civilians by proxy forces such as armed gangs and a special police force called FAES, which the USis currently discussing designating a terrorist group, making Maduro an official state sponsor of terror. Hundreds of political prisoners and dissident military personnel are spied on by embedded Cuban intelligence and then promptly tortured as an example to any others who might consider rising up in defence of our people and Constitution.
Desperate and hopeless, our people are fleeing in droves. Over five million have fled so far (that is more than the population of Ireland), and our exodus will easily surpass Syria’s 6.7 million in 2020. Yet our refugees, who pour mostly into neighbouring countries, get 2 per cent of the per capita funding the Syrian refugees got: $100 per person for Venezuelans; $5,000 for Syrians. It is time the world takes our struggles seriously and has an international donor conference.
More importantly, though, we need the root cause addressed: we need to get our democracy back. I am appointed to the UKby Juan Guaidó, the man the UK and more than 60 other countries recognise as the constitutional Interim President of Venezuela. According to our Constitution, which was signed into law in 1999 by the late President Hugo Chávez, when the Presidency of the Republic is vacant, the President of the National Assembly (now Juan Guaidó) becomes the Interim President. His job is that of a trustee for democracy: to steer the country to free and fair elections to choose the new president and fill the vacant position.
The reason why Nicolás Maduro is no longer recognised as the President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela by the world’s democracies is simple: the presidential election in May 2018 that triggered Maduro’s claim to another six-year term was a farce. First, he manipulated the timetable to strike when he thought the opposition was weakest: the original electoral date was scheduled for December 2018 but was subsequently pulled ahead to 22 April before being pushed back to 20 May. Secondly, all major opposition candidates with strong political party structures were in prison or blocked by his judges from running. The two leading candidates opposing Maduro, Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci, had been his previous allies, leading the electorate to suspect that it was a sham, with a fake opposition.
The elections had the lowest voter turnout in Venezuela’s democratic era. Even the two other candidates rejected the results, citing major irregularities. Bertucci asked that the elections be repeated with Maduro being disqualified. While a plethora of Venezuelan NGOs, as well as the US, EU, Organisation of American States, Lima Group, and Australiaall rejected the election, Maduro (with the blessing of a handful of autocratic allies) had himself inaugurated on 10 January 2019. Meanwhile, those of us who love our people and our Constitution, followed the rule of law and, with it, Juan Guaidó.
I was thrown into this dramatic fight for our country’s democracy on 19 March 2019, the date that will forever mark the BC from the AD in my life. I was on my way to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC to fly to Paris for the OECD Integrity Forum. My appointment had been in discussion for about a month, but it was my Congressional testimony the week before that put my nomination over the top.
The previous week, while I was finishing dinner in New York City on 11 March, I got a call from a friend of mine who had been working for a Venezuelan NGO in Washington and then joined our Embassy to the US, with our Ambassador Carlos Vecchio.
“Vanessa, please tell me you will be back in DC on Wednesday morning.”
“I could be. Why?”
“We need you to testify before Congress. It needs to be a Venezuelan, who speaks perfect English, is an expert on Venezuelan issues and Latin American security and is not part of the interim government.”
“Ok. Count me in.”
The hearing on H.R. 1004, “Prohibiting Unauthorised Military Action in Venezuela Act,” featured two American women and me. After exposing the horrors under the Maduro regime, I argued simply that such legislation was unnecessary under the US Constitution (which requires Congressional authorisation for military action) and instead it would simply serve as carte blancheto accelerate the slaughter of my people. By the end of the session, I had turned the conversation from how to block military action in Venezuela, to what the United States could do to help. Six days later, I was nominated by the President and voted by the National Assembly, to be the Ambassador to the Court of St James’s. I landed in Paris and went to the OECD Integrity Forum with a head full of questions and pride.
Reality hit when I answered another call from Caracas: this one from Andrew Soper, the UK’s Ambassador to Venezuela. He asked me about whether I had a visa to live in the UK; I said I had a European passport. He made it very clear to me that while I would be received in London, it would not be as an ambassador: I would get no immunity or diplomatic visa, nor would I get any of our three diplomatic properties in London: the residence on Melbury Road; the embassy on Cromwell Road; or the consulate and military attaché on Grafton Way, which is the historic London home of our Independence leaders, who came to London in 1810 looking for British support for our freedom. Soper’s Embassy was doing good work in Venezuela and they had no appetite for reciprocity.
I knew then I would have to wield the media to full effect, and upon my arrival in early April, I launched a full media campaign with the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Financial Times, The Telegraph– I left no stone unturned. Her Majesty’s Government took a more proactive posture in defence of our democracy and those sick and dying in our humanitarian crisis. They have given £44.5 million to alleviate the suffering and led an array of sanctions against the dictatorship.
But for me, it all came together on 21 January 2020, when I walked into FCO Minister of State Christopher Pincher’s office. The sight of my President, the embodiment of the democracy for which we are fighting, was overwhelming: “My President is here. I can’t believe it!” With deep secrecy, we had got him out of Venezuela, into Bogotá, and into London as his first port of call for his historic European tour. From Pincher’s office we went to see the Foreign Secretary, who made a gracious video unambiguously recognising Guaidó as the Interim President, pledging British support. That evening, as I sat in No. 10 Downing Street, just a metre away from my President’s right hand during his meeting with the UK Prime Minister, I was absolutely sure of two things: I have chosen the right path for my life, and we will be free.