MIAMI – The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is stepping up efforts to woo the Biden administration as the new US president questions whether he should risk a political backlash in Florida and ease sanctions aimed at isolating the socialist leader.
Over the past two weeks, Maduro has conceded to long-standing US demands for the World Food Program to be allowed to take hold in the country at a time of growing famine. His allies have also pledged to work with the US-backed opposition to vaccinate Venezuelans against the coronavirus and have met with Norwegian diplomats trying to revive negotiations to end the country’s continuing political conflict.
The frenzy of activity comes as senior U.S. officials including Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman meet on Monday as part of their continued review of Venezuela policy, according to two people familiar with the plans . The interagency meeting, which was not previously reported, will focus on whether the United States should take action to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, people said on condition of anonymity. to discuss classified diplomatic matters.
“All of these recent movements indicate that Maduro is trying to get Washington’s attention,” said Geoffrey Ramsey, a Venezuelan observer at the Washington office on Latin America. “The question is whether the White House is ready to embark on a full-fledged negotiating strategy, or whether it will continue to play it safe and keep politics on the back burner.”
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Jorge Rodriguez, the pro-Maduro congress leader and a key promoter of the dialogue, declined to comment on Maduro’s recent moves.
Ramsey said more goodwill gestures could be on the horizon.
Tuesday is the deadline for a congressional commission controlled by Maduro to present a list of candidates to the National Electoral Council. Behind the scenes, moderates aligned with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles met with Maduro representatives to push for the inclusion of two opposition rectors on the five-member board. If demand is met, it could pave the way for Maduro opponents to participate in the mayoral and governor elections later this year.
The future of several US citizens imprisoned in Venezuela is also part of the mix. In recent months, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has urged Maduro and his key aides to release six former Houston-based CITGO executives as well as two former Green Berets who participated in a failed raid. last year organized from neighboring Colombia.
Maduro’s posture has so far failed to impress officials in Washington.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described Maduro as a “brutal dictator” and pledged to continue to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela – a position shared by more than 50 nations.
In addition to promising to work more with American allies and to support the delivery of more humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the Biden administration has done little to unwind Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign for overthrow Maduro.
The policy of engaging with Maduro is treacherous. Past attempts at dialogue failed to produce a breakthrough and ended up strengthening Maduro, whose grip on power rests on the support of the military as well as allies of Iran, China and Iran. Russia – all of whom have seen their influence grow since Guaidó, with the support of the United States. , tried to spark protests by declaring himself president in 2019 after Maduro was re-elected in a vote boycotted by the opposition when several of his leaders were banned from running.
That didn’t stop the others from trying to bring the two sides together, however. This week, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin is traveling to Venezuela in what many observers see as an effort by the Holy See to test the waters for another attempt at negotiations such as those being ‘he negotiated with former Spanish president Jose Luiz Rodriguez. Zapatero in 2016.
While the stated purpose of the trip is to attend the beatification on April 30 of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, known as the “doctor of the poor” for his care of the sick in the 1800s, Parolin is the former Vatican ambassador to Venezuela. and her very unusual journey suggests more than just making saints is the order of the day.
But supporters and opponents of a more active American engagement agree that the biggest obstacle is Florida. Trump comfortably carried the state to the battlefield in part because of the sweeping policies favored by immigrant voters fleeing Cuba, Venezuela and other authoritarian governments. With Democrats holding a slim six-seat majority in the House of Representatives, betting on Maduro to follow through on his word could end up hurting their chances in the midterm election.
“To this day, there is simply no reason to believe that the Maduro regime is acting in good faith,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and Iran. He cited Maduro’s inability to honor a deal brokered last year by the regional arm of the World Health Organization to tackle the coronavirus pandemic as an example.
“Every engagement Biden has with the Maduro regime undermines the democratic opposition,” said Abrams, now a senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If the United States wants to engage at some point, it should only be done in the context of serious negotiations between the regime and the opposition, to help these negotiations succeed.”
Monday’s meeting is unlikely to produce an immediate policy change and follows at least one previous high-level meeting of top Biden officials from several agencies – the departments of Treasury, Justice, Commerce, and the United States. ‘State as well as the White House – to discuss Venezuela.
However, it could provide a roadmap for future US actions if momentum towards negotiations builds, the two said, including the lifting of a Trump-era ban on diesel fuel trading that , according to some opponents of Maduro, worsens hunger by making it more difficult to get food supplies to market in diesel trucks.
The United States must also decide by June to allow Chevron to resume limited drilling and oil activities – a potential lifeline for Maduro, who desperately needs every dollar as oil production under his leadership fell to its lowest level since the 1930s despite abundant crude reserves. . As part of a waiver of sanctions granted last year, the US oil giant and its US partners have been ordered to cease all operations except those strictly necessary to maintain its assets in the country.
The State Department declined to comment on Monday’s meeting or the status of the U.S. Policy Review. However, a spokesperson for the Western Hemisphere Office said the United States welcomes efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people and end the country’s humanitarian crisis through effective international cooperation.
Of course, not all the signals from Caracas are encouraging.
Last week, when the State Department celebrated the World Food Program’s announcement that it would begin providing emergency food assistance to 1.5 million Venezuelan children, Foreign Minister Arreaza spoke out. addressed to Twitter to accuse the United States of having “kidnapped” Venezuela’s resources in international banks through “criminal sanctions”. “
This sparked a bitter exchange that ended with Arreaza’s vow to present as evidence of blackmail to the International Criminal Court a tweet from a senior State Department official making sanctions relief conditional on the release of the officials. political prisoners and the organization of free and fair elections.
“If Washington’s responses remain exclusively public – via Twitter or television – with no quid pro quo in a private diplomatic channel, progress or any sort of thaw or transition will be painful and mistrustful,” said Phil Gunson, an analyst based. in Caracas for the International Crisis Group, based in Brussels.
While Gunson has said Maduro’s limited willingness to engage in partial agreements should be reciprocated to the extent possible to encourage greater openness, it will be difficult to overcome the inertia of the Trump years.
“There is no quick fix in Venezuela,” Gunson said. “A solution is going to require subtlety and a long-term commitment.”
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