Venezuela’s Opposition Ambassador Operates in London Limbo

Venezuela’s Opposition Ambassador Operates in London Limbo

Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido (center, wearing a blue shirt) delivers a speech to supporters during a gathering in Socopo, Barinas State, Venezuela, on June 1, 2019.

SourceYURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because she’s the face of Juan Guaidó’s shadow government in London.

Vanessa Neumann is London’s most unconventional diplomat.

An ambassador without an embassy, she nonetheless performs most of the functions normally associated with the role: meeting the host government, liaising with the leader back home, attending diplomatic receptions and dealing with consular queries.

The main complication is another Venezuelan holds the same job and uses the official embassy building.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has been recognized this year by more than 50 nations — including the United Kingdom, the United States and most of the European Union — as Venezuela’s rightful interim president.

But leftist President Nicolás Maduro has refused to cede power in Caracas since winning another six-year term in what were widely seen as rigged elections last year. This has left Guaidó, and his 26-strong diplomatic team around the world, in a legal limbo as they try to operate a makeshift parallel government.

“There is no rule of law in Venezuela,” says Neumann over breakfast in a fashionable London café. “The regime, the dictatorship is going all out against the democratic forces, and the role of the international community is pivotal. So those of us who take these roles as ambassadors, each of us has to be ready to fight. It’s a very uneven battle.”

No one’s given me anything. And I’m quite a chunk of my own money down. Not quite six figures, but nearly.

Vanessa Neumann

Neumann, a well-connected academic, consultant and author, says she was asked to take on the U.K. envoy role two months ago. She got the call from Venezuelan opposition figure Leopoldo López, an old family friend, with Guaidó’s blessing.

“Everyone who has taken one of these postings is making some kind of sacrifice,” says Neumann. “I stopped working, shuttered my [security consultancy] business in Washington and moved here.

“The Venezuelan diaspora are very happy I’m here,” she continues. “They didn’t feel that the people who were occupying the embassy building were representing them.”

For now, Rocío del Valle Maneiro, the Maduro government’s ambassador to the U.K., appears to hold the cards. She occupies the official Venezuelan residence in London’s Holland Park and directs the staff of the embassy building in South Kensington and a third building, Bolívar Hall.

But money from Caracas for the official London embassy has been a problem. Some of the diplomats, unable to afford their rent after months without pay, took to sleeping in the office, according to a leaked letter of complaint from Maneiro published last year in Venezuelan media.

Nobody was immediately available at the Venezuelan Embassy to comment.

Latin American envoys in London say Maneiro used to be a regular on the diplomatic circuit but has not been seen in the past two months.

In the meantime, Neumann is leading her own diplomatic whirlwind, meeting officials from the U.K.’s Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defense and the Department for International Development, liaising with her fellow Guaidó-appointed envoys around the world, dealing with the estimated 25,000-strong Venezuelan diaspora in London via a secure messaging group — and trying to acquire a permanent office.

Gettyimages 1143604031

Pro-Maduro activists occupy the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C., May 13, 2019.

Source ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty

The Foreign Office is treading a diplomatic tightrope. Keen not to lose its mission in Caracas, the U.K. has recognized Neumann as “the official representative of President Juan Guaidó” but has not withdrawn accreditation for Maneiro.

Officials say Guaidó’s administration prefers to see the U.K. Embassy in Caracas stay open because it plays a valuable role. They say he accepts that, for now, it is not possible to expel Maneiro.

Other London-based diplomats also face protocol dilemmas. Latin American ambassadors say they cannot invite Neumann to their regular lunches because their group operates by consensus and Maneiro and the Cuban ambassador — who would both object — are members.

But Neumann says the Argentine ambassador did invite her to his National Day celebration last week and introduced her to guests as “ambassador.”

Her immediate efforts are focused on trying to gain possession of one of the Venezuelan Embassy buildings in London so that she can move out of the makeshift office space she has borrowed from a friend.

Hopes for long-term funding are pinned on the British government agreeing to unfreeze some of her country’s assets in the U.K., including $1.2 billion in Venezuelan government gold held by the Bank of England.

But in the absence of a political settlement in Caracas, and with the Foreign Office unwilling to provoke the Maduro government by expelling its ambassador, it is unclear how long Neumann’s unconventional mission can last.

“No one’s given me anything,” she says. “And I’m quite a chunk of my own money down. Not quite six figures, but nearly.”

+
By Michael Stott and Andres Schipani

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2019.

OZYRising Stars

People who are accelerating our culture and advancing the conversation – for good or for ill. You may not have heard of them yet – but you'll soon need to know 'em.