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At a summit aimed at restoring democracy in Venezuela, an opposition leader was missing


Political instability continues in Venezuela. Neighboring Colombia hosted an international summit earlier this week aimed at restoring democracy in Venezuela but got off to a rough start when the country's most prominent opposition leader, who'd planned to attend, was forced to leave Colombia. Reporter John Otis has been following the story and joins us now from Bogota, Colombia.

John, thanks for being with us.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: So I gather almost as soon as Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader, landed, he was put on a plane.

OTIS: Yeah. It was really bizarre. Guaido, as you may recall, was, until recently, considered by about 50 countries as Venezuela's legitimate head of state. That was because President Nicolas Maduro has turned into a dictator and basically destroyed Venezuela's democracy. But efforts to remove Maduro have failed. And in the meantime, Guaido has lost a lot of his initial support. He's also been banned from leaving Venezuela. But he wanted to make a splash at the Colombia conference, so he crossed the border on foot. That took Colombia by surprise.

The president here, Gustavo Petro is a leftist who wants to improve relations with the Maduro regime and has always dismissed Guaido as a bit of a fraud. In fact, Guaido was not invited to the conference. And his sneaking into Colombia gave the Petro government the excuse to escort him to the airport for a flight to Miami.

SIMON: So did that blow up the summit meeting?

OTIS: Pretty much. But, you know, Colombia had to try something because there's a lot riding on Venezuela getting back to normal. Government corruption and Maduro's mishandling of the economy have led to food shortages and massive poverty. That's prompted more than 7 million Venezuelans to flee the country, and about 2.5 million have settled here in Colombia. And that's put a huge strain on the country's social services. And so Colombian President Petro is trying to take a bigger role in searching for a solution. He invited delegates from the U.S. and 19 other countries to Bogota for a one-day conference. But it was pretty badly organized, and the truth is nothing much came out of it.

SIMON: Are there also ongoing talks in Mexico?

OTIS: Yeah, that's right. Negotiations between Maduro and the political opposition have been going on for the past two years in Mexico City. The opposition is trying to convince Maduro to hold a free and fair presidential election next year. Now, should that happen, the U.S. has said it would lift sanctions on Venezuela's vital oil industry. But, you know, the talks keep getting stalled, and so far, there's just been very little progress.

SIMON: How do we put a handle on how the crisis in Venezuela has affected people who decided to leave, many of them trying to get into the U.S.?

OTIS: Yeah. That's correct. And a big problem is that many of these Venezuelans on their way north are opting for the very dangerous land route across the Darien jungle. I've been up there. It's a remote, roadless region separating Colombia from Panama. Hundreds of migrants have been lost in the rainforest. Some have been raped and robbed, and others have been killed by bandits.

And so earlier this week, the Biden administration announced new measures to try to stop this flow. First, they've announced a 60-day so-called surge campaign to try to stop human smuggling through the Darien jungle. They're also setting up migrant processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala. And finally, the U.S. says it's going to double the number of migrants it will accept from Venezuela and other Western Hemisphere nations.

SIMON: Reporter John Otis in Bogota.

Thanks so much for being with us.

OTIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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