Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó's appearance at the State of the Union — as well as the bipartisan ovation he received — was intended to send a strong message of U.S. support for his efforts to unseat Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.
Guaidó attended the address as a guest of the White House.
"Maduro is an illegitimate ruler, a tyrant who brutalizes his people, but Maduro's grip on tyranny will be smashed and broken," Trump said in his speech. "Here this evening is a very brave man who carries with him the hopes, dreams and aspirations of all Venezuelans. Joining us in the gallery is the true and legitimate president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó."
Guaidó's visit to Washington comes after a rare trip outside Venezuela for an international tour aimed at increasing support for his push for new democratic leadership in Venezuela.
Maduro has overseen the once mighty oil-rich nation as it has become mired in an economic and humanitarian crisis that has led to hyperinflation and widespread shortages of food and medicine. Millions of Venezuelans have fled their country across the Western Hemisphere.
Benjamin Gedan, former Venezuela director at the National Security Council in the Obama administration, said Guaidó's presence sends a critical message about U.S. commitment to solving the Venezuelan crisis.
"The symbolism is extraordinarily important," Gedan said. "Guaidó's relevance as a figure in the Venezuelan opposition is entirely connected to his ability to stay on the radar of the White House."
Guaidó received an extended bipartisan standing ovation. It was one of the few times that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats stood to applaud during Trump's speech.
Support for Guaidó and his efforts to restore democracy in Venezuela is one of the few administration policy priorities that have received sustained bipartisan support.
"In our partisan times, we don't see a lot that both sides agree on," said Fernando Cutz, former director for South America at the National Security Council under Trump. "And Venezuela is one of those topics where Republicans and Democrats agree."
Last year, the U.S. was the first country to recognize Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Since then, nearly 60 nations have also recognized Guaidó as president.
But despite U.S. support, Guaidó has yet to inspire the Venezuelan people to force Maduro from power. And current and former administration officials have raised concerns that support for Guaidó had fallen at the White House.
Those concerns increased after the opposition failed to secure a meeting with Trump during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and a rally in South Florida.
"Trump's decision to snub Guaidó in Davos and Miami sent a troubling signal," Gedan said. "A year into his shadow presidency, Guaidó controls no territory and has not moved the regime an inch toward ceding power. His only relevance is his international recognition and his ties to the White House."
During his speech, Trump appeared to address those concerns. He told Guaidó to take a message back to Venezuela from him and the American people.
"All Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom," Trump said.
NOEL KING, HOST:
For more than a year, the Trump administration has made clear that it wants Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, replaced by the opposition leader, Juan Guaido. But Maduro is still president. And then this week, President Trump invited Guaido to his State of the Union address. And in that address, Trump said this.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Please take this message back that all Americans are united with the Venezuelan people in their righteous struggle for freedom. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
KING: Guaido was also at the White House yesterday. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been covering this. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
KING: So why is the president focusing on Venezuela right now?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, you know, Venezuela - he wants to show that it is a priority even though it's not in the headlines. He wants to give Guaido a boost. But, look; there are also political motivations. Venezuela is a potent campaign issue. Venezuela - and this is very important to Venezuelans and Cuban expats, particularly in South Florida. And Florida, as we know, is a key swing state.
You know, a year ago, though, Guaido inspired these massive demonstrations. He led to all this hope that he could lead an uprising, but a lot of those hopes kind of dwindled a bit. So when Guaido stood up during the State of the Union address, it really sent a message. It was one of those rare moments during the State of the Union where both Republicans and Democrats stood and clapped.
KING: Which is certainly a symbolic moment, and that's important. But is there anything beyond symbolism here?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, there is a lot of accusations from current and former U.S. officials that President Trump was pulling away from Guaido. The White House says that's not true. A senior administration official told reporters that they have all these different ways still to increase the pressure on Maduro. The official said that Trump has authorized new measures, and they should be taken in the next 30 days.
But, you know, I talked to Fernando Cutz. He's a former White House official who helped draft the specific road map of economic sanctions for Maduro. He told me the toughest measures had already been taken.
FERNANDO CUTZ: I would say that, realistically speaking, when you're thinking about options that will make an actual impacts that aren't symbolic, the United States has used the vast majority of its options in the economic realm. Now, of course, you know, again, you could go into a military realm, but that is not something that I think is seriously being considered.
ORDOÑEZ: One thing that the White House is also not considering, and that's negotiating with Maduro himself.
KING: So if the U.S. has tried its toughest options, what then are its options? What's left?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's unclear how they are going to do much beyond taking symbolic steps. One option is sanctions against countries that still back Maduro. Here's what national security adviser Robert O'Brien told a gathering of diplomats on Wednesday.
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ROBERT O'BRIEN: The reason that Venezuela does not have a democracy and is not free is because Cuba, Russia and China are propping up a dictator who does not have the support of his people, who is illegitimate and who is exercising tyranny over the people of Venezuela.
ORDOÑEZ: You know, he warned Russia and other supporters to, quote, "knock it off." And, you know, Guaido's still in Washington. He's going to be continuing to make the rounds, meeting with the USAID administrator and also congressional leaders.
KING: All of this does bring up a really interesting point, which is whether or not economic sanctions actually work and, in this case, whether economic sanctions could force Maduro to leave.
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Experts I've talked to say sanctions can be effective to push countries at changing behavior, but they're not as good about forcing countries to change their leadership. Historians point to Cuba and Iran, which, you know, those really haven't achieved their goal. And Maduro's already absorbed some of the biggest blows that the United States could deliver - an embargo on oil sales, tough banking restrictions. So there's a lot of questions still left about this strategy.
KING: And he's still there. White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thank you.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.