The president-elect of Guatemala was turned back from Venezuela’s main airport on Saturday as he tried to get into the country to visit opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
Alejandro Giammattei was escorted on to a plane to Panamá while Mr Guaidó, who had been waiting to receive him, was left sitting in a room in Caracas next to an empty chair, against the backdrop of the two countries’ flags.
In a statement, the Venezuelan government said it had turned Mr Giammattei away because he tried to enter the country on an Italian passport in a personal capacity. It said that as a high level Guatemalan official, he should have travelled with papers from that country and sought permission from the government in Caracas.
Mr Guaidó described the decision as absurd while his senior foreign representative Julio Borges tweeted: “The Maduro dictatorship opens the doors to narco-terrorists but stops a democrat entering the country”.
The decision to bar Mr Giammattei suggests once again that despite a concerted nine-month campaign to remove him from power, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro feels confident enough to call the shots in his entrenched battle with his opponents.
Mr Guaidó’s US-backed campaign to topple Mr Maduro has lost momentum since the heady days of January and February when, amid the euphoria of his emergence as a challenger to the president, a change of government seemed possible.
His attempt to spark an uprising in April failed and the Venezuelan military has so far stood behind Mr Maduro despite constant inducements from Washington to switch sides. Russia, China and Cuba remain steadfast in their support for the president.
Senior Guaidó aides tried to use last month’s UN General Assembly to breathe new life into their campaign but with limited success.
They persuaded members of the so-called Rio Treaty — a rarely invoked Western hemisphere defence pact — to agree to use “all available measures” to crack down on Mr Maduro, but the commitment was short on detail and most Latin American nations remain very wary of military action.
If the aides were hoping to relaunch Mr Guaidó, “they clearly were not able to do that,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America and a Venezuela expert at Tulane University in the US. “In fact, the whole series of events must be quite disappointing for them.”
Mr Guaidó has faced other setbacks in recent weeks.
Photographs of him emerged with two men who, it turned out, were members of a notorious Colombian criminal gang called “Los Rastrojos”. They helped him defy a government travel ban and cross the border into Colombia in February to attend a Live-Aid style Venezuelan benefit concert and oversee an unsuccessful attempt to transport humanitarian aid into his country.
On September 10, Mr Guaidó lost a key ally in John Bolton, who was sacked as US national security adviser.
Five days later the Venezuelan opposition leader pulled the plug on Norwegian-brokered talks with the Maduro regime in Barbados. While the decision may have been justified — the government had failed to turn up in the previous six weeks, it nevertheless gave the impression of opposition intransigence.
The following day, the Maduro government revealed it had reached a deal with moderate opponents behind Mr Guaidó’s back. The socialist party agreed to return to the National Assembly — the democratically elected body it had boycotted since early 2017 — and make some reforms to the national electoral body. In exchange, the moderate opponents agreed to back the government’s call for an end to US sanctions.
While numerically the rebels are insignificant, the pact nevertheless undermined Mr Guaidó’s attempt to keep the Venezuelan opposition united, one of his principal achievements to date.
“It underlines that Guaidó continues systematically to lose momentum.” noted Diego Moya-Ocampos, Latin American analyst at IHS Markit.