A senior U.S. diplomat has been meeting with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro and his opposition this week to renew talks between the normally hostile governments and help prevent a humanitarian disaster in the recession-racked nation.
Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, met Tuesday with several leading opposition figures, and on Wednesday with Maduro, who has for years been one of the most vehement critics of the United States government.
“I have confirmed our interest that, sooner rather than later, we can build an agenda of respect between the U.S. and Venezuela,” Maduro told a crowd of supporters shortly after yesterday’s meeting with Shannon. “It’s never too late. … I hope President Obama will rectify the position he has held the last eight years against the revolution.”
Tensions between the two countries have heightened, with the Maduro administration accusing the U.S. government of attempting to undermine the democratically elected government. But Maduro is not short on critics, including former Uruguayan President José Mujica, who called the current president “too closed” and suggested Venezuela ask for international aid to overcome the crisis.
“Time is ticking quickly,” said Jason Marczak, director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, in an interview with CNBC, “and Venezuela needs to have a rapid response from the international community, but none of that can happen without the Venezuelan government requesting it.”
Maduro has so far opposed the idea of outside intervention – a proposal that regional governments will discuss at today’s Organization of American States (OAS) session.
“For Maduro to go to an international … source will be recognizing that he has totally failed, and the revolution was a whole scheme, and [it]will also imply losing control,” said Miguel Santos, senior research fellow at the Center for International Development at Harvard University, in an interview with Humanosphere. “And if there’s something they don’t want to lose now that they have lost everything, it’s control.”
The OAS will also debate Venezuela’s crisis and consider sanctioning Maduro for allegedly stamping out his political opposition, which is pushing for a recall referendum this year to cut short Maduro’s term and trigger new elections.
Shannon’s visits to Caracas last year yielded no tangible results, according to the Guardian, setting low expectations about the current trip. In a report on Wednesday, Eurasia Group analyst Risa Grais-Targow said negotiations are “unlikely to help resolve Venezuela’s political crisis, because its government remains unwilling to free political prisoners, recognize the opposition-led national assembly, or hold a recall vote this year.”
The two countries have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010.
Neither U.S. nor Venezuelan officials have given immediate reports on the content of the discussions. But with Venezuela in the midst of an economic crisis that has led to food riots and a campaign to oust Maduro, U.S. officials have said they want to avoid violence and a humanitarian crisis that might spill across its borders, undermining President Barack Obama’s legacy in a region where he made history by reopening relations with Cuba.
The oil-rich country has declared a state of emergency and is suffering the worst economic crisis in its history. Ordinary people are regularly going without food, and scantily stocked supermarkets are being ransacked by hungry mobs. Last week, more than 100 of Venezuela’s shops were reportedly looted in the coastal town of Cumana.
By IMF figures, Venezuela has the world’s worst negative growth rate (-8 percent), and the worst inflation rate (482 percent). This has prompted Maduro’s opposition to canvas signatures for a petition, calling for him to step down and forcing a referendum on whether Maduro stays in office.