US congressman: ‘Window of opportunity’ to engage Maduro

CARACAS, Venezuela — Recent actions by Venezuela President Nicolas Madura are creating a “window of opportunity” for the U.S. government to engage with a South American leadership that the Trump administration had been trying to isolate, the head of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said Tuesday.

Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York said Maduro’s decision to open Venezuela to food assistance, Friday’s release of six jailed American oil executives to home detention and the expected appointment of opposition figures to the country’s electoral agency signal that Maduro “may be interested and willing to open negotiation” with the administration of President Joe Biden.

“So, I think we have openings. I think we should take advantage of it,” Meeks said at the annual Washington Conference on the Americas, which is sponsored by the U.S.-based Council of the Americas.

He said that some U.S. sanctions — imposed in waves by the Trump administration —should be rolled back. Those restrictions have made it difficult for the country to develop, sell or transport its oil — key to the Venezuelan economy — and they also froze personal assets held abroad by key Venezuelan officials.

Maduro allies in Venezuela’s congress on Tuesday were expected to appoint new members of the five-person National Electoral Council, which runs national elections. Critics say the council has been stacked with government cronies and has functioned as a tool of the socialist leadership. Meeks said it is expected to include an opposition presence this time.

“Members of the opposition will be supported. I think that’s also something that’s significant and important,” Meeks said.

On the campaign trail, Biden called former President Donald Trump’s policy of pushing for regime change in Venezuela an “abject failure” that has served only to strengthen the socialist leader.

And senior officials from several federal agencies have been weighing U.S. options, including whether to ease up on crippling oil sanctions and whether to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, according to two people familiar with the plans. The people insisted on anonymity to discuss classified diplomatic matters.

Meeks has known Maduro since they both were members of the so-called Boston Group, a coalition of lawmakers from the two countries that gathered to repair bilateral relations in the aftermath of the 2002 coup that briefly removed Maduro’s mentor, then-President Hugo Chávez.

Maduro on April 19 agreed to allow the United Nations World Food Program to establish a foothold in the country aimed at providing school lunches. U.S. officials had been demanding that Venezuela allow such aid, which it had long resisted.

He followed that with the partial release of six employees of Houston-based Citgo who were jailed more than three years ago on corruption charges that U.S. officials consider unfair.

The U.S. and about 60 other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the country’s legitimate ruler — putting his hand on Venezuela’s purse strings abroad. In a sign of potentially eased confrontation, Guaidó and his key backers earlier asked the U.S. Department of the Treasury to release a portion of those funds in a way that would help Maduro’s administration access COVID-19 vaccines under a U.N. program.

The current leadership of the National Electoral Council was appointed in June by Venezuela’s highest court, which has been staunchly pro-government. The court had stripped the National Assembly, with an opposition majority, of its constitutional mandate to elect the members of the council.

Maduro’s allies overwhelmingly regained control of the National Assembly, which they had lost in 2015, following elections last year boycotted by the opposition, which considered the vote unfair. The electoral process also was classified as fraudulent by the United States, the European Union and other countries in the region.

Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City. Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman contributed from Miami.

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