BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — He’s not recognized as a head of state by the country he’d be visiting. His diplomatic immunity is granted by the United Nations, not an unfriendly American administration that could decide to pick him up on drug-trafficking charges if he sets foot in the United States. Then there’s the $15 million U.S. bounty for information leading to his arrest.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has good reason not to travel to New York for the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders. But this year’s virtual U.N. General Assembly format means he can be heard without having to come to New York — or risk an uprising back home if he left the country.
Instead, Maduro will speak from the comfort of the presidential palace, renewing his place on the international stage after missing out on last year’s event.
“This opens up an opportunity that Maduro doesn’t usually have,” Venezuelan analyst Luis Vicente Leon said. “On a net scale, he comes out winning.”
He’s not alone. A virtual General Assembly knows no national borders, incurs no travel expenses and allows even the most cautious, prickly or paranoid leaders to have their say without leaving their at-home security bubbles.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte spoke to the General Assembly for the first time in his four years in office. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s speech marks only the second time in more than six decades that a sitting monarch from the kingdom addresses the gathering. And Tanzania’s populist president, who rarely leaves the country, will get his 15 minutes, too.
Whether a short online speech will give them a leg up at home remains to be seen. After months of lockdown, much of the world is effectively Zoomed out. But these leaders’ voices will almost certainly travel farther than in years past. The opposite is true for their opposition foes, who generally rely on side events to get their message out as leaders came together in New York.
“The virtual speeches do give an opening,” said Shannon O’Neil, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, said as the assembly got underway. “But the virtual format puts them on the same platform as your regular Zoom, too.”
Venezuela’s situation is a case in point: The nation is in the midst of a power tug of war between Maduro and U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Last year, both men sent representatives who carefully avoided crossing paths at the U.N.. While Vice President Delcy Rodríguez got the main stage, the opposition commanded a powerful presence on the sidelines. President Donald Trump personally hosted one of four highlevel meetings on the country’s crisis.
This year, Maduro will give his country’s official address and Guaidó will deliver online remarks on a separate platform. His aides will attend some side U.N. events — none of which are specifically about Venezuela. The lack of face-toface meetings is expected to make things more complicated for the opposition, which has been losing momentum over the last year.
“Without a doubt this format makes it much more difficult to focus just on Venezuela,” said Miguel Pizarro, who represents the opposition’s humanitarian efforts in Washington.
The opposition’s lessened visibility also packs an emotional punch.
“I think in general for Venezuelans every time that Maduro talks trying to represent us all, it’s an insult,” the exiled Venezuelan lawmaker said.
But the online speech also is unlikely to win Maduro any new friends.
A recent United Nations Human Rights Council report accuses Maduro’s government of committing crimes against humanity, including grisly cases of torture and killings supposedly carried out by security forces. Their method: electric shocks, genital mutilation, asphyxiation and more. The allegations are likely to be brought up repeatedly at the virtual assembly.
“I don’t believe he is going to have any added benefit,” said retired U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. “If he is speaking on Zoom it might as well attract additional criticism.”