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Venezuela's Maduro blasts US in speech to world leaders

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro blasted United States sanctions in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, while avoiding any mention of a report accusing his government of crimes against humanity.

In a lengthy, prerecorded speech that ran more than twice the allotted time, the socialist leader denounced what he called a “criminal, inhuman aggression” by the U.S. aimed at ousting him from power, and said Venezuela would resist.

“The world must know that we are prepared to fight with the force of our history, our spirit, reason and international law,” he said, standing before a giant portrait of South American independence hero Simón Bolivar.

The speech marks Maduro’s return to the world stage after his absence last year as political tumult embroiled the country. The U.S., which doesn't recognize him as Venezuela’s legitimate president, has indicted him on drug charges. Maduro likely would have skipped this year's proceedings too, had the pandemic not forced the U.N. summit to go virtual.

Even though he would have U.N. diplomatic immunity, Maduro would be taking a risk by traveling to the U.S., where there is a $15 million bounty for information leading to his arrest. The South American nation's political feud pitting Maduro against U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó frequently spills into the international arena, where the world's greatest powers have staked a claim in the country's discord. This year's online General Assembly offered Maduro a leg up, relegating opposition leaders who in 2019 held side events with powerful leaders further along the margins.

Guaidó nonetheless tried to make his voice heard, releasing his own pre-recorded video in rebuttal to Maduro on social media platforms. Standing before four Venezuelan flags, he spoke as if addressing a room full of dignitaries, calling his statement “an act of democratic vindication” by the nation's “true representatives.”

“The dictatorial regime of Nicolás Maduro with its ties to drug trafficking and human rights violations is also usurping Venezuela's right to speak,” he said. The online sphere, as it turns out, still offered both men a stage, but Maduro's outsized image on giant screens broadcasting his speech in the green marbled U.N. General Assembly hall nonetheless served as a symbolic microcosm for the country's ordeal.

Though deeply unpopular, Maduro still controls every aspect of life in Venezuela. Guaidó, though backed by influential world leaders, is increasingly powerless within the beleaguered nation, his popularity dropping as he struggles to rally more than a small crowd of supporters at recent calls for protest.

The United Nations has been providing humanitarian aid and shining a light on human rights abuses. The secretary general has pressed for dialogue. Though nearly 60 nations support Guaidó, many U.N. members back Maduro.

“I do think the fact that Maduro is recognized by the majority of U.N. members highlights the difference between Guaidó’s democratic legitimacy and Maduro’s de facto control on the ground,” said Geoff Ramsey, a Venezuela researcher at the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “Over time Maduro has effectively demonstrated he is the one in charge.”

Peppering his remarks with jabs at the U.S., Maduro strove to present himself as a diplomatic statesman, noting that he recently freed several dozen prisoners, including several high-profile opposition leaders. And, as he often does, he portrayed himself as a man of dialogue, looking to peacefully resolve the country’s ills.

“It is through political, diplomatic and mutually agreed upon negotiation that we will reach the solution of this dispute inherited from imperial colonialism,” he said. At no point did Maduro mention a recent scathing, in-depth report commissioned by the U.N. Human Rights Council that accuses his government of grisly crimes including torture and killings allegedly carried out by security forces. The techniques they used included electric shocks, genital mutilation and asphyxiation.

Heads of state from several neighboring nations have used their platform at the General Assembly to denounce Maduro as an autocrat whose poor handling of his country’s oil wealth has led to a humanitarian and economic collapse.

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra implored the U.N. to help find a political solution to Venezuela's crisis “before it turns into a chronic situation which nobody desires, especially the Venezuelan people who suffer from it.”

Guaidó, for his part, urged U.N. member nations who have been silent until now to join in pressuring the Maduro government to back down. “To those who at some point justified or supported Maduro: I want to reiterate the call to do what's right, stop human rights violations that in this instant continue, to collaborate to put an end to the terror that the egregious dictatorship intends to impose,” he said.

Venezuela is in the midst of a staggering economic decline that even before the COVID-19 pandemic was considered worse than the U.S. Great Depression. The Trump administration has hit the Maduro government with sanctions. Maduro characterized the punitive measures as an “illegal blockade” that have dealt a crippling blow but which his administration has managed to circumvent.

“It is a battle for peace, for our homeland, for the region, for humanity,” he said standing along Venezuelan and U.N. flags in a towering, red-carpeted room. He also denounced the U.S. as “the most serious threat to peace in this world.”

Online, neither Maduro nor Guaidó seemed to generate wide viewership, though Venezuelans on both sides of the feud weighed in with comments that seemed to reflect a mutual exhaustion from an ordeal that has brought them few solutions.

“Give us a speech with concrete actions, please,” one man implored. “We are tired.”

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