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Venezuelan opposition head meets Trump in show of US support

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido waves as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)
Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido waves as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (Leah Millis/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó on Wednesday scored a long-sought meeting with President Donald Trump, a high point on an international tour aimed at bolstering support for Guaidó's U.S.-backed campaign to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

But Guaido left the White House without the one thing coveted by every leader who visits: an Oval Office photo opportunity with the American president.

Soldiers lined the White House driveway as Guaidó arrived for the afternoon meeting. Trump stepped onto a red carpet and into a damp chill to welcome Guaidó and escort him to the Oval Office for a private meeting after a stroll along the colonnade. Guaidó sported a red tie, just like Trump.

A day earlier, Guaidó was a guest at Trump's State of the Union address. Lawmakers applauded as Trump introduced Guaidó as Venezuela's “true and legitimate” leader and called Maduro a “tyrant.”

In a statement late Wednesday, the White House said Trump emphasized the U.S. commitment to end Maduro's “corrupt and violent dictatorship.”

Trump and Guaidó discussed “the importance of securing the return of freedom for all Venezuelans that will promote and safeguard a democratic and prosperous future for the Western Hemisphere," spokesman Judd Deere said.

Vice President Mike Pence and Guaido met at the Capitol before Pence left on a trip to Pennsylvania. Also attending were Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, both Florida Republicans.

The U.S. and nearly 60 other governments say Maduro's 2018 election was illegitimate and that Guaidó, as leader of the country's National Assembly, should be named interim president under Venezuela's constitution. These countries blame Maduro's socialist policies for a political and economic crisis threatening regional stability.

Maduro, however, remains in control, having faced down a failed military uprising, a brief renewal of mass anti-government protests, and sanctions and other U.S. efforts to force him to leave office.

Guaidó slipped out of Venezuela at a time when he had few options left and was struggling to draw significant numbers of people into the street to protest against Maduro.

Guaidó's momentum saw a slight upturn in early January, when he was seen in widely published images tussling with armed riot police while attempting to jump a fence and enter the National Assembly legislative building.

“Mr. President, please take this message back to your homeland,” Trump told Guaidó during Tuesday's speech. “All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom.”

The White House said the U.S. will continue to work with countries in the region to “confront the illegitimate dictatorship in Venezuela” and ensure a “democratic and prosperous” future for its people.

Trump's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, called on Russia, China and Cuba to end their support for Maduro. O'Brien said Maduro lacks his people's support and is “exercising tyranny” over them.

“We call on the Chinese, the Russians and the Cubans to knock it off and to get out of Venezuela and let the Venezuelans control their own destiny,” O'Brien said Wednesday to a group of ambassadors to the U.S.

Venezuela has been a priority in Latin America for the Trump administration, which a year ago was the first among a coalition of governments to recognize Guaidó as president.

The administration has undertaken what it describes as a “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions and other measures designed to hasten Maduro's departure from office, but he has remained.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., criticized Trump's approach, saying on Twitter that Trump's view that Maduro would back down after the U.S. recognized Guaidó as the country's leader “was an idea, not a strategy, and it had no hope of working.”

Russia has a political, military and economic alliance with Venezuela that was forged under Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is struggling to pay back billions of dollars in loans from Russia — about half owed to Russia's state-owned oil company Rosneft.

O'Brien said the Trump administration would consider during the next several weeks whether to impose U.S. penalties on Rosneft for helping provide a monetary lifeline to Maduro.

Guaidó's attendance at Tuesday's speech came as a surprise as he has sought for some time to secure a meeting with Trump, his most important international ally.

Guaidó visited Miami on Saturday, not far from where Trump spent the weekend at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, but the leaders did not meet then. Guaidó has been on a two-week world tour that took him first to Colombia, then across Europe and Canada, where he sought more international help to oust Maduro.

The Venezuelan government early last year banned Guaidó from leaving the country after he fell under investigation, accused of violating the constitution by challenging Maduro. This is the second time he's disobeyed the ban, both times leaving to rally international support at the risk of arrest upon his return.

The administration on Wednesday promised “very significant consequences” for Maduro if he interferes or harms Guaidó when he returns to Venezuela.

The White House had said earlier Wednesday that the news media would be allowed into the top of the Oval Office visit, but it abruptly shifted course and barred reporters.

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Associated Press writers Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, and Kevin Freking, Aamer Madhani, Lisa Mascaro and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.