How Kowtowing to Trump Guided British Support for Juan Guaidó

Recognizing self-proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó in 2019, Britain's Tory government claimed to be standing up for democracy. Recently published ministerial diaries reveal the cynicism of the real discussions behind the move — showing how ministers explicitly saw the crisis as an opportunity to curry favor with Donald Trump.

Self-proclaimed president of Venezuela Juan Guaidó with President Trump during a White House visit on February 5, 2020. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The recently published diary of former minister of state for Europe and the Americas Alan Duncan provides crucial details on the decision-making process behind Britain’s recognition of Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó as president in January 2019.

On January 23, the day that Guaidó declared himself president, Duncan writes,

I insist on tweeting something supportive, but speak to Andrew Soper, our Ambassador [in Caracas] first, as we don’t want him to be chucked out. So we are one step away from saying we recognise Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim President, but choosing only to say for the time being that we consider Maduro illegitimate.

The next day, then foreign minister Jeremy Hunt visited Washington, attending a “mid-morning meeting with SofS Mike Pompeo, and then Vice-pres Mike Pence. [Hunt] then takes us a little by surprise and ramps it up by suddenly saying that we will consider recognising Guaidó. It throws us somewhat, but we will adjust accordingly.”

US pressure, it seems, was key to forcing Hunt’s hand on Venezuela. Indeed, Duncan continues by writing on January 25 that the foreign secretary, Hunt

confides that we need to use Venezuela as an issue on which we can be as fully in line with the US as possible, because [Hunt] is out of line on a number of issues such as Syria. It’s one of those trade-off moments which we need if we are to handle the Trump administration cleverly.

Such declarations detail how concern for human rights is a veil for a far more cynical policy. Apparently quoting Hunt, Duncan continues: “Venezuela is in their back yard, and it’s probably the only foreign adventure they might just pursue.”

Just one month prior, Hunt had contradicted Donald Trump’s statements regarding the defeat of ISIS and withdrawal of US troops from Syria, seemingly embarrassing the president.

On top of geopolitical concerns, Duncan’s past remarks highlight Britain’s interest in Venezuelan oil. In 2018, Duncan declared:

The revival of the oil industry [in Venezuela] will be an essential element in any recovery, and I can imagine that British companies like Shell and BP, will want to be part of it.

Duncan’s diary also suggests how humanitarian concerns are prompted by foreign policy interests. On February 4, Duncan notes that he had

a very friendly phone call with DfID Secretary Penny Morduant, which I’d been trying to achieve for a week. My pitch was clear — when we lift the lid [on recognising Guaidó], Venezuela will be seen as the most pressing country of need in the western hemisphere; it affects its neighbours too, who are hosting 3 million migrants; our current activity comprising two humanitarian advisers and aid through multilateral organisations looks too flimsy; this is a Global Britain moment; it needs to be part of our broader policy in the continent; it allies us with all the Lima Group countries, along with the US and Canada; we need to gear up now in anticipation; we need to brand it clearly as UK Aid, but be cautious about partnering with US Aid, because of America’s rather tainted reputation in the region; in short. It’s a moment we must not miss. [Emphasis added]

Indeed, a Google Trends search for “Venezuela humanitarian” shows that interest in the issue spiked in January 2019, concurrent with Guaidó’s self-proclamation.

Doing Business

The recognition of Guaidó was the key prerequisite for freezing Venezuelan assets held in Britain — notably the roughly $2 billion of Venezuelan gold held in the Bank of England.

Officials have consistently claimed that foreign gold reserves held in the Bank of England are not a matter for the British government.

In December 2018, Lord Bates declared: “Holding gold reserves on behalf of any foreign central bank is a matter for the Bank of England.” In March 2019, then UK treasury minister Robert Jenrick discussed the ostensible political independence of the Bank of England in similar terms:

Holding gold reserves on behalf of any foreign central bank is a matter for the Bank of England. Ultimately, the Bank is responsible for dealing with requests from its customers should they wish to repatriate their gold. HM Treasury only has direct control over the UK government’s own holdings of gold within its official reserves, which are held at the Bank of England.

These comments, however, do not seem to square with the political maneuverings of both Britain and the United States in the freezing of Venezuelan gold.

In his recent book, The Room Where It Happened, former NSA chief John Bolton describes Hunt’s trip to Washington in late January 2019. According to Bolton, Hunt

was delighted to cooperate on steps they could take, for example freezing Venezuelan gold deposits in the Bank of England, so the regime could not sell the gold to keep itself going.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Foreign Office was asked for “all correspondence between the US State Department and the UK Foreign Office relating to Venezuelan gold held in the Bank of England . . . for the years Jan 1 2019 to Jan 1 2021.”

In response, the Foreign Office acknowledged that it “does hold information relevant to [the] request,” yet redacted large parts of the document since this “would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and other states if it was disclosed. In this case, the release of information relating to this case could harm our relations with United States of America and Venezuela.”

After Hunt’s trip to Washington, Britain acted quickly. According to the diary entry for January 25, Duncan held a

phone call with Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, about Venezuela’s gold. . . . I tell Carney that I fully appreciate that, although it’s a decision for the Bank, he needs a measure of political air cover from us. I tell him I will write him the most robust letter I can get through the FCO lawyers, and it will outline the growing doubts over Maduro’s legitimacy and explain that many countries no longer consider him to be the country’s President. A Marc Rich oil trader knows how to do business with a Goldman Sachs banker.

Three days later, Duncan writes with pride: “I was cheered up by Matt Hancock who had just had dinner with Mark Carney. ‘My god, he loves you. He was effusive. He said he’d been trying to get through to the FCO for ages about the Venezuelan gold, and one quick phone call with Alan Duncan fixed it in a trice.’”

The gold has since become a key source of tension between both governments — especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite being urged by the UN to unfreeze the gold in the Bank of England, Britain’s commitment to sanctions remains resolute.

In March 2021, Britain voted against a motion tabled at the United Nations Human Rights Council calling on “all States to stop adopting, maintaining or implementing unilateral coercive measures not in accordance with international law, international humanitarian law, the Charter of the United Nations and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States, in particular those of a coercive nature with extraterritorial effects”.

Minister for the Americas Wendy Morton told Parliament that “sanctions are a useful tool for furthering our broader Venezuela policy” and noted that the government might adopt further such measures.