Top Democrat warns Biden he could miss rare diplomatic opening in Venezuela

WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee says a rare diplomatic opportunity has emerged in the years-long standoff between the United States and Venezuela but it will require President Joe Biden to drop his opposition to engaging with President Nicolás Maduro.

The Venezuelan leader has sent positive "signals" to Washington in recent days 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 in an interview with The Washington Post.

The Biden administration has thus far refused to engage Maduro and kept in place crippling sanctions against the country in a continuation of the Trump administration's maximum-pressure campaign.

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 Guaidó as the nation's interim president, a designation Biden has continued using. The Trump-era policies delighted anti-Maduro hard-liners in Miami and Washington but did little to loosen Maduro's hold on power or improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela.

Backed by Cuba, Iran and Russia, Maduro remains firmly in place. The Western sanctions - along with years of domestic corruption and chronic mismanagement - have added to the abysmal state of Venezuela's once oil-rich economy.

Venezuela now faces one of the most complex humanitarian crises in the region, with millions fleeing the country and almost 80 percent of the population living in poverty. Covid-19 has only worsened the situation amid an ongoing feud between the opposition, which blames a vaccine shortage on government corruption, and the Maduro regime, which attributes it to international sanctions.

"If you review the Trump administration's policy of maximum pressure towards 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. Meeks and Maduro, who both had hardscrabble upbringings and share a love of baseball, have known each other for two decades, dating back to when they founded an informal network of U.S. and Venezuelan lawmakers called the Boston Group.

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to help the Venezuelan people. That's the reason why I've been involved in the region for as long as I have," he said when asked if he would travel to South America in order to pursue dialogue.

Meeks took the gavel of the powerful Foreign Affairs Committee last year, beating out a more senior rival, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., for the position. Meeks is well-situated to influence U.S. policy toward the socialist country, but faces steep head winds from the well-organized anti-Maduro hawks in Congress, in particular, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Last week, Meeks issued a statement urging the Biden administration to "acknowledge" Maduro's appointment of a new National Electoral Council (NEC), the institution in charge of guarding and scheduling elections. Analysts have expressed cautious optimism about the council, given that two of its members are linked to the opposition.

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

"This is the best election council since 2004," said Geoff Ramsey, Venezuela director for the Washington Office on Latin America.

The Biden administration is less enthusiastic.

"A slightly more balanced National Electoral Council is no substitute for a comprehensive process leading to free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, which are long overdue," a senior administration official said.

Meeks and other Democratic lawmakers say the Biden administration should restore a so-called "diesel fuel swap" to provide humanitarian relief. "It immediately will help some of the poorest people of Venezuela," Meeks said.

In the days before the U.S. presidential election last November, 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.

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

"President Biden is in no rush to lift sanctions," said a senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss White House thinking. "Given the regime's track record, the United States and our international partners will continue to press for the fundamental changes needed, including lifting bans on political parties, the unconditional release of political prisoners, invitations to credible international electoral observers, and an announced electoral calendar."

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.

"He is a great connoisseur of the reality of Venezuela and he knows the president," Arreaza told The Post. "I'm sure he would be welcome if he wanted to do it."

Meeks said ignoring Maduro's recent moves risks squandering a diplomatic opportunity.

"Don't let the door close," he said, "if the door closes, you never know when it opens again."

At the moment, the Biden administration appears to be willing to take that risk.

Earlier this year, State Department spokesman Ned Price said, "I certainly don't expect this administration to be engaging directly with Maduro." A second U.S. official affirmed that remains the administration's outlook.

"It is and has always been Venezuelans themselves who must decide the future of their country, and whether and how to negotiate with Nicolás Maduro," the official said.

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Herrero reported from Caracas.