By John McEvoy
After Juan Guaidó declared himself Venezuelan president on 23 January, the opposition leader immediately sought to legitimise his parallel government by garnering international support. The US, most European states, and large parts of Latin America moved swiftly to recognise Venezuela’s new “interim president” (indeed, US Vice President Mike Pence had already given Guaidó Washington’s blessing), and the opposition leader began announcing his ambassadorial positions before the month’s end.
In the time since, however, Guaidó’s international credibility has suffered a series of blows. Multiple failed coup attempts have forced the ‘interim’ president back to the negotiating table, and members of his Popular Will (VP) party recently became embroiled in a major corruption scandal. Though the Western media’s love affair with the Venezuelan opposition has begun to wane, the US is standing resolute behind Guaidó, even directing “aid” money designated for Honduras and Guatemala to pay his party’s expenses.
Now, therefore, seems an apt moment to look closer at who Guaidó’s “ambassadors” are, what they’re up to and, crucially, where their money’s coming from. In doing so, Guaidó’s envoys begin to look less like diplomats than regime change lobbyists. And tied to oil, old money, and elite US institutions, they reflect the true essence of the Venezuelan opposition.
Regime change lobby
Tamara Suju, an international human rights lawyer, is Guaidó’s “ambassador” to the Czech Republic.
Suju is the executive director of the Czech-based Center for Studies and Analysis for Latin America (CASLA) Institute, whose mission statement is:
to share with Latin-American reformers the finest lessons of democratic and economic transformation in post-communist Europe.
The CASLA Institute is one of numerous projects incorporated within another Czech-based non-government organisation (NGO) named DEMAS. According to its website, DEMAS is supported by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the European Union and, vitally, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Known as “America’s meddling machine,” the NED is a central organisation among numerous US regime change agencies. As lawyer Eva Golinger documented in 2014, the NED and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) have agitated for regime change in Venezuela for well over a decade. Between 2013 and 2014 alone, they pumped over $14 million into Venezuelan opposition groups as violent street protests erupted across the country.
Yet Suju’s ties with the US regime-change apparatus go further. The CASLA Institute’s website boasts that it is also bankrolled by the NED, as well as Forum 2000 (a “pro-democracy and human rights” conference, again, funded by the NED). In 2015, the NED awarded Suju a “democracy” award; she accepted it in person from NED President Carl Gershman.
Guaidó’s representative in the Czech Republic is also the international coordinator for human rights NGO Foro Penal (Penal Forum), which the US State Department has decorated with numerous awards for its work in Venezuela. According to WikiLeaks cables from 2006, Foro Penal has been bankrolled by Freedom House and the Pan-American Development Foundation (PADF) through a USAID-supported project. Foro Penal president Alfredo Romero, meanwhile, has spoken at a “US Democracy Support” forum.
Just two weeks before Guaidó pronounced himself president, Foro Penal published a damning report on the alleged use of torture in Venezuela. The report was widely circulated in the international press, fanning the flames of “international pressure” already burning around Maduro’s feet. More recently, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet widely cited Foro Penal’s report as if it were a neutral source, demonstrating the revolving door between the human rights industry and the US State Department.
To this end, Suju is unsurprisingly connected to a who’s who of regime change hustlers masquerading as human rights advocates. In March, Organisation of American States (OAS) Secretary General Luis Almagro – who broke the OAS charter by recognising Guaidó as president in January – signed an agreement with Suju, lending OAS support to CASLA as an “early-warning human rights NGO.”
Elsewhere, Suju rubs shoulders with Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco, who argued in 2018 that “US/Canada sanctions do not harm the poor.” Vivanco also concurred with Joanna Hausmann’s (daughter of neoliberal economist and Guaidó adviser Ricardo Hausmann) observation that: “Hands off [Venezuela] can actually mean ‘blood on your hands.'”
CASLA also participated in the Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, organised by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF). Despite its apparently innocuous title, HRF’s founder is the disgraced Thor Halvorssen, who also happens to be the first cousin of VP founder Léopoldo Lopez – another recipient of NED funds.
It thus comes as little surprise that Suju has long agitated for regime change in Venezuela. In her acceptance speech for the NED “democracy” award in 2015, Suju unsubtly pled for foreign intervention, saying: “The Venezuelan people cannot take on the irrational army and dangerous government alone.”
At the NED-funded Solidaridad Democrática en América Latina conference in Colombia in 2018, Suju told a packed audience that Venezuela needed “more sanctions… because this government won’t go with votes.” CASLA’s website, meanwhile, describes Venezuela as “a large open-air concentrate camp” – a provocative charge for an NGO based in the Czech Republic.
With her privileged status as a human rights lawyer, Suju has become an important strand in a spider’s web of US-funded public support factories for regime change. Indeed, as the CASLA Institute bragged on Twitter: “The US press is echoing the work of the CASLA Institute on Venezuela. Yesterday, the Washington Post, Fox News, NBC News published pieces on our denunciation of torture presented by the International Penal Court.” Her US funders, it seems, are getting decent value for their money.
Vanessa Neumann is Guaidó’s “ambassador” to the UK. She is the founder and owner of Asymmetrica, a company which specialises in corporate risk assessment for Fortune 500 oil and gas companies in Latin America.
Alongside Henriy Kissinger quotes and dense corporate euphuism, Asymmetrica’s website hosts a blog written by Neumann. On 25 February, two days after the USAID “humanitarian aid” debacle (and three weeks before Guaidó would appoint her ambassador), Neumann frothed how USAID trucks were “burned by the criminal regime,” and explained how a “Guaidó government needs to be strategic and project its power.” In a self-endorsing article masquerading as friendly advice, she claimed Guaidó must:
- Hire the private sector team with a long track record in aggressive asset recovery: if they nailed Hezbollah and ISIS, they can nail the Maduro regime.
- Appoint ambassadors to the world’s financial centers who have serious diplomatic and anti-illicit finance credibility.
Asymmetrica, whose staff also includes Guaidó’s “ambassador” to Brazil, Maria Teresa Belandria, has not responded to questions regarding its financing at the time of writing.
Neumann’s LinkedIn page, meanwhile, adds that she is a former senior fellow at the neoconservative think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), and that she has:
Lobbied [the] US government for oil industry interests under Venezuela’s Minister Counselor for Petroleum Affairs [during the 1990s].
In 2017, Neumann appeared to lobby then-CIA director Mike Pompeo for regime change directly. At an Aspen Institute think-tank Q&A, Neumann told Pompeo she was “interested in your open assessment on American interests in or threats from Venezuela.” She punctuated her question by saying: “regime change looks to be – we hope – imminent or spiralling down.” Pompeo responded by suggesting that plans were already underway to topple the Maduro government – a crucial detail on both counts given the Venezuelan opposition’s main indignation centres around the 2018 presidential election.
Speaking to the House Foreign Affairs Committee of the US congress in March, Neumann claimed “Venezuela… has a legitimate interim government that is loved by the people,” and suggested possible “military cooperation” with the US. Notably, Neumann also cited Foro Penal before the House, demonstrating in remarkable fashion how information laundered through the US government can come full circle – presented back to its originators as evidence for regime change
Since her appointment as ambassador later the same month, Neumann has attended the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) “Venezuela, Hezbollah and Iran” event in London. The most recently published donor list for the MEI includes Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Raytheon, and numerous Saudi government institutions. She has also frequented various “security” events including the Rockefeller brothers-funded AspenSecurity conference (where she met her “teenage idol” Madeleine Albright), and the defence industry-sponsored CABSEC/SAMSEC forum.
While gunning for regime change, Neumann barely conceals a nostalgia for the pre-Hugo Chávez days – a period marked by unfettered neoliberalism and burgeoning racial inequality in Venezuela. In an interview with CNN‘s John Fredericks in 2018, Neumann said:
Oh my god… please, we want the return of the Americans… I grew up in a country that… loved the US, saw it as a model of the region. And now the people are starving, you have 30 million who have basically been, like, kidnapped.
Neumann told the Financial Times in June that “no one’s given me anything. And I’m quite a chunk of my own money down. Not quite six figures, but nearly.” Though her pockets are undoubtedly deep, her opaque financing and political track record raise serious questions about who else may be filling them, and in whose interests she might function as an official ambassador.
Elisa Trotta Gamus
Guaidó’s Argentinian “ambassador,” Elisa Trotta Gamus, is also a human rights lawyer. According to her Linkedin page, Trotta has worked as a coordinator for USAID and the Ford Foundation in Venezuela.
In Argentina, Trotta heads an NGO named “Alianza por Venezuela,” apparently designed to help Venezuelan migrants in the country. But Trotta is also named within a list of beneficiaries of Argentinian president Mauricio Macri’s PRO party within the ominous context of “strengthening Latin American democracies.”
“Like any PRO foundation worth its salt,” writes Argentinian news outlet El Disenso, “Alianza por Venezuela is opaque to the point of illegality… it is impossible to know the amount or origin of the funds it manages.” Trotta also reportedly donated to Macri’s 2017 election campaign to the tune of $15,000.
“Following social media”, El Disenso continues, “we find a very sensible woman who, in between photos of yachts, travelling the world, long drinks and oyster plates, always finds a moment to worry about the misery of her brothers [in Venezuela], upon which she’s cemented a prosperous career.”
As the Grayzone reported in June, Carlos Vecchio has led the regime change charge in the US for some years. He was awarded for his efforts on 14 May, when regime change enthusiast and Florida senator Rick Scott presented Vecchio with the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Freedom Award. Keeping with fashion, the IRI is another US-government funded regime change factory with longstanding links with Venezuela; its Freedom Award is sponsored by the NED and ExxonMobil.
Julio Borges and Carlos Scull Raygada
Julio Borges is Guaidó’s Lima group “ambassador.” Borges is one of the co-founders of the Primero Justicia party, which was largely built on IRI and NED funds. Guaidó’s envoy to Peru, Carlos Scull Raygada, was also a significant Primero Justicia operative in the Sucre mayorship, Caracas, in 2014. During this time, Scull was also linked to NED funding.
Regime change legacy
A significant number of Guaidó’s international envoys – supposedly responsible for behaving diplomatically – are linked to past regime change efforts in Venezuela, including plots to assassinate high-level government officials.
Guaidó’s “ambassador” to France, Isadora Zubillaga, is one of the founding members of VP and widely seen as the right-hand woman of Leopoldo Lopez. Like Primero Justicia, VP was bankrolled by the NED from its earliest days.
In a video diffused in 2016 by the Venezuelan socialist party’s vice president, Diosdado Cabello, Zubillaga is accused of leaving Venezuela more than 30 times to launder money through construction sites for VP. Cabello also claims that Zubillaga organised the “Mexican party” – a 2010 meeting in Mexico City, where high-end VP officials laid out a coup plot against Chávez.
Guaidó’s German “ambassador,” Otto Gebauer, manned Hugo Chávez’s prison cell during a coup attempt in 2002. After the event, Gebauer wrote a book entitled “I Saw Him Cry,” claiming the president tearfully requested to be released and sent to Cuba. Gebauer “is an incendiary figure in Venezuela,” writes German-based news outlet DW: “You don’t have to oppose Guaidó to wonder whether he might not have been able to come up with a more diplomatic figure.” Borges also played a significant role in the 2002 coup, and in various subsequent destabilisation efforts.
Humberto Calderón Berti is Guaidó’s “ambassador” to Colombia. In July, Venezuelan-based news outlet Mision Verdad reported that Calderon was personally contacted by a marksman involved in an alleged plot to assassinate president Nicolas Maduro and various high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
Numerous members of Guaidó’s diplomatic team, meanwhile, are close allies of María Corina Machado, who has been accused of inciting violent street protests and discussing coup plots against the Venezuelan government with US State Department officials. Brazilian “Ambassador” Teresa Belandria served as international coordinator for Machado’s VenteVenezuela party. Canadian “Ambassador” Orlando Viera-Blanco is an apparent supporter of Machado. Neumann has called her a “friend,” and celebrated voting in the 2017 elections with Machado’s cousin. Suju has made similar remarks.
With these combined cases, we see not the image of a diplomatic team but of a regime change lobby which is historically inclined to launch violent destabilisation campaigns. At some level, their propensity to play a zero-sum regime change game must cast aspersions on the level of good-will present around the negotiating table in Barbados.
Born to rule
Guaidó’s envoys also seem to have a quasi-aristocratic relationship to power. Many are descendants of the pre-Chávez political establishment or the old Venezuelan oligarchy, and their stubbornness to concede power is revealing.
Indeed, Carlos Vecchio (US), son of former COPEI official Rafael Vecchio, once claimed unironically: “My father was a politician, so it must be in my blood.” He would later claim: “I felt that it was my responsibility to go into politics after watching my father’s efforts”.
Maria Faría (Costa Rica) is “the daughter of would-be Hugo Chávez assassin” Jesus Faría Rodriguez and step-daughter of politician and aid to former President Jaime Lusinchi, Blanca Ibánez. Elisa Trotta Gamus (Argentina) is the niece of opposition politician Paulina Gamus. And Guarequena Gutiérrez (Chile) is the daughter of former opposition politician José Bernabé Gutiérrez.
Neumann, meanwhile, is the grand-daughter of Hans Neumann, who formed part of Venezuela’s old economic elite and, according to WikiLeaks cables, organised official US visits to the country during the 1970s. She, like Calderón Berti (Colombia) and Vecchio, has significant ties with private oil interests.
A considerable number of Guaidó’s “ambassadors” were also educated in elite US institutions. Neumann (UK) is a Yale fellow and former student of Stanford; Vecchio (US) studied law at Georgetown; Calderón Berti (Colombia) studied petroleum engineering in Oklahoma; Trotta Gamus (Argentina) received a Master’s degree from Brandeis university in Massachusetts; Teresa Belandria (Brazil) is a research scholar at the National Defense University in Washington; Zubillaga (France) has worked with the Kennedy Foundation in human rights and with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg; Rene de Sola Quintero (Ecuador) studied law in Washington; and Borges (Lima group) earned his masters at Boston College and is Oxford university alumni.
Though formally out of government since 1998, certain sections of the Venezuelan opposition have never truly accepted the mandate of the Bolivarian revolution. The current coup attempt must be contextualised within a wider effort to restore the “normal” pre-Chávez class order in Venezuela.
For all intents and purposes, Guaidó’s attempts to forcibly remove the elected government of Venezuela have failed. And though this is far from the first US-backed coup attempt in the country, none have yet left an entire diplomatic mission – lacking the political and material means to fulfil the requirements of the role – in limbo, leaving major questions about their financing unanswered.
This crisis of legitimacy, it seems, is only likely to deteriorate as the gulf between political reality and regime change expectations grows.