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Democrat sees chance for Venezuela talks

by The Washington Post | May 16, 2021 at 5:20 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- A rare diplomatic opportunity has emerged in the years-long standoff between the United States and Venezuela, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said, but it will require President Joe Biden to drop his opposition to engaging with Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro.

The Venezuelan leader has recently sent positive "signals" to Washington by granting house arrest to six former executives of the U.S.-based energy company Citgo who had been in prison, allowing the World Food Program to begin operating in his country and naming a new elections council that has two members of the opposition, said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York.

"There's a lot of work to be done, but when you see an opportunity, I don't think that you let it sit idly by. You try to see if you can exploit it," Meeks said.

So far, The Biden administration has refused to engage Maduro and has kept in place crippling sanctions against the country in a continuation of the Trump administration's maximum-pressure campaign. Former President Donald Trump and his top advisers hoped that sanctions against Venezuela's state oil company in 2019 would lead to the regime's collapse and usher in a democratic government.

Trump also led an international campaign to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the nation's interim president, a designation Biden has continued using. The Trump-era policies did little to loosen Maduro's hold on power or improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela.

The South American country now faces one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the region, with millions of people fleeing and almost 80% of the population living in poverty. Covid-19 has only worsened the situation.

"If you review the Trump administration's policy of maximum pressure toward Venezuela, it basically has failed," Meeks said.

The lawmaker said he would be willing to make contact with the Maduro government on behalf of the Biden administration in order to broker a dialogue that could lead to free and fair elections in the country. Last week, Meeks issued a statement urging the Biden administration to "acknowledge" Maduro's appointment of a new National Electoral Council, the institution in charge of guarding and scheduling elections.

The move was considered a first step toward the Maduro government and parts of the opposition working constructively together after similar efforts ended in 2019, when Guaido declared himself interim president.

In the days before the U.S. presidential election last year, Trump banned non-U.S. companies from trading diesel for Venezuelan crude oil, exacerbating fuel shortages that impact electricity generation, the transport of food and medicine, and the powering of agricultural vehicles.

On Friday, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said his government would be willing to talk to Meeks as a go-between with the Biden administration.

Despite the urging of Meeks, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and other lawmakers, the Biden administration appears unmoved.

"I certainly don't expect this administration to be engaging directly with Maduro," State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier this year.

A second U.S. official affirmed that remains the administration's outlook.

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