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For the past four years, Carlos Vecchio was a fixture at Venezuelan restaurants in Doral, standing beside lawmakers and community leaders as they railed against Nicolás Maduro’s consolidation of power.
Now, the 49-year-old politician who chose to live in what some call “Doralzuela” after being exiled in 2014 is taking on a much bigger role: chief diplomat in the U.S. for Juan Guaidó’s transitional government.
Vecchio has spent the past two weeks in Washington speaking with Vice President Mike Pence, congressional leaders from both parties and a host of policymakers as he tries to get humanitarian aid into Venezuela and Maduro out of power.
“This is the moment. We have an open window,” Vecchio said during a recent press conference with foreign policy leaders on Capitol Hill after the U.S. recognized Guaidó, head of the country’s National Assembly, as Venezuela’s legitimate president. “Venezuela is ready for a change, but we cannot do this alone.”
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But Vecchio doesn’t have the same resources at his disposal compared to other foreign diplomats in Washington. The Venezuelan embassy in Georgetown is locked and staffers there who were loyal to Maduro have mostly left the country. The country’s oil production and military is still controlled by Maduro, though recent U.S. sanctions could bolster the newly recognized government by placing money in accounts that cannot be accessed by Maduro.
Vecchio holds the official diplomatic title of chargé d’affaires — the rank below ambassador — and his days are mostly spent meeting with officials and communicating with opposition leaders. He doesn’t have access to an embassy and isn’t in charge of a full diplomatic delegation and logistics like running consulates and issuing visas, though he travels around with a group of aides.
“He’s been there less than a week but the one thing that’s valuable about having him here is it gives us an on-the-ground, direct liaison to the interim president and to the National Assembly who can report back in detail what it is we’re working on,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, who works closely with the White House on Venezuela policy. “It’s valuable to have him here.”
Vecchio was in the audience as Rubio’s guest for Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. The president said, “We stand with the Venezuelan people in their noble quest for freedom,” but didn’t talk specifics about how to aid Guaidó’s government.
Lawmakers and advocates who have worked with Guaidó say he’s an effective leader. He can communicate in English and knows the ins and outs of U.S. politics. During his time in Venezuela, he was a consensus builder among the often-fractured opposition to Maduro, according to Guillermo Zubillaga, head of the Venezuelan working group at the Council of the Americas.
“He’s always been an agent of unity in the opposition,” Zubillaga said. “I’m sure Carlos is perfectly suited to be a diplomat.”
Zubillaga said Vecchio helped to establish primary elections among members of the Venezuelan opposition, allowing registered party members to elect their candidate on the ballot for the general election, instead of party leaders making the decision themselves.
“Instead of taking radical approaches and saying ‘I’m going to do it on my path’, there’s always been a willingness to talk to different parties,” Zubillaga said. “You can ask any opposition figure from many parties and they will tell you they don’t have anything against Carlos.”
Instead of relocating to Washington or New York after leaving Venezuela, Vecchio chose to live and work in Doral, the city with the highest percentage of Venezuelans in the entire country. From there, he began cultivating relationships with elected officials like Rubio, then Gov. Rick Scott and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
“I’ve known Carlos Vecchio a long time,” Scott, now a senator, said. “I just met him through trying to be helpful to the opposition and to fight Maduro in Miami, primarily. I’ve hosted rallies with him.”
And Vecchio benefits from Florida’s status as a crucial swing state in the upcoming 2020 presidential election and an electorate that already cares about foreign policy. Cuban-Americans who have voted Republican for decades are an important part of Trump’s coalition in Florida that could give him a second term, even if younger Cubans are voting for Democrats with higher frequency. Most of them are opposed to socialism and Maduro’s close relationship with Havana.
“He lives in Doral so he’s someone who’s been around, who knows the community,” Rubio said. “The other day when the vice president was there, he was not a stranger to the people in that community. We all know who he is already.”
Vecchio’s message now isn’t much different than the constant drumbeat against Maduro during his four years in South Florida, but the stakes are much higher since the United States, the Lima Group and a host of European nations recognized Guaidó’s government over Maduro’s late last month. The constitution that Guaidó’s government and his supporters cite as justification for his interim presidency requires that elections must be held within 30 days, and Maduro hasn’t showed any signs that he would allow elections to commence as he blocked humanitarian aid from entering the country on Wednesday.
“The job now is to have Maduro give up the control of the last few institutions that he dominates, security forces and the like and then I think [Vecchio] will be instrumental in the lead-up to elections, where President Guaidó says he has no interest in running,” Rubio said. “I think his role between now and then is acting as a liaison, which is what ambassadors do between policymakers in the U.S. and the rightful, legitimate government in Venezuela.”
Zubillaga pointed to the stance of elected Democrats in Florida as evidence of Vecchio’s work. While Democrats in other parts of the country once supported former President Hugo Chavez or accused the U.S. of orchestrating a coup to oust Maduro, South Florida Democrats and Republicans are in unison on the issue. Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who has thousands of Venezuelan constituents, stood and applauded during the State of the Union when Trump said “America will never be a socialist country,” as other Democrats sat. Wasserman Schultz had an additional meeting with Vecchio on Thursday and said Speaker Nancy Pelosi is fully supportive of Guaido.
“His track record in Venezuela prepares him well,” Zubillaga said. “We’ve seen how useful that’s been with the bipartisan support that we have in the state. He has something few people in Washington have: bipartisan support for his cause, regional support and global support.”
Getting someone with Vecchio’s experience into the United States was a priority for the opposition when Maduro began arresting opposition leaders in 2014. While Leopoldo Lopez was the best known opposition who would stay in the country, others were dispatched around the world so the most effective leaders wouldn’t all be silenced.
“He had to leave and it was not by choice,” Diaz-Balart said. “I don’t think there could be a better representative of the folks in Venezuela in the United States than him.”
Zubillaga said Vecchio’s upbringing — he was born in a small town in mountainous northeast Venezuela and has degrees from Georgetown and Harvard — makes him well-suited for diplomacy.
“He mixes the kind of things that are really hard in a politician, an understanding of the interior [of Venezuela] and the common man, but he has the education and he knows the importance of communication,” Zubillaga said, noting that he worked as an unofficial ambassador in the U.S. after Maduro declared himself the winner during elections last year that were not considered free and fair.
Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, didn’t know Vecchio until recently, but came away impressed after meeting him.
“He’s a great messenger, personable. He has an outstanding relationship with Senator Rubio and that always makes things easier,” Risch said. “He is a product of the upheaval they’ve had there, he speaks about it passionately and he’s able to speak about it in the first person and all of that is persuasive.”
And those who know him well say Vecchio is well-suited to the behind-the-scenes work necessary to succeed as a diplomat as Guaidó and Lopez remain the opposition’s leaders in Venezuela.
“He’s kind of the like the chief operating officer and Leopoldo [Lopez] was the CEO,” Zubillaga said “He’s the guy getting stuff done.”