Colombia’s Petro, Venezuela’s Maduro meet in Caracas


CARACAS, Venezuela — The United States has long relied on Colombia as its closest ally in Latin America against Venezuela’s socialist government. Former Colombian President Ivan Duque was a key partner in the US effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. In a fiery speech in 2019, he said that Maduro’s “dictatorship” has “very few hours left.”

Three years later, the authoritarian Maduro remains in power. And on Tuesday, Duque’s successor went to Caracas to meet him for lunch.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s visit to the Venezuelan capital is his most important step yet toward fulfilling a campaign promise to mend ties between the neighbors. He reopened their common border and sent an ambassador to Caracas. Now, his visit cements a new era in regional diplomacy toward Venezuela.

It comes just two days after Luis Inacio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election, returning the left to power in every major Latin American country, including several that have been Maduro’s main foes. Maduro celebrated Lula’s victory over right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro on Twitter and said he had spoken to him by phone about their plans to resume a “binational cooperation agenda”.

It also comes as the Biden administration has shown a willingness to deal directly with Maduro and as Venezuela’s US-backed interim government led by opposition leader Juan Guaido appears to be nearing its end.

“Even before that, the era of pushing Maduro for democratization was kind of waning,” said David Smild, a senior fellow on Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. Having seen the strategy fail to remove Maduro and seek to undermine his relationship with Moscow and possibly reopen another source of oil, leaders now prefer to cooperate with him.

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Petro and Maduro planned to discuss the countries’ bilateral relations, the opening of the border and Venezuela’s return to the Inter-American Human Rights System, according to a Colombian news release. The meeting is part of Petro’s efforts to boost the regional economy, advance Latin American interests and protect the Amazon. Maduro agreed to Petro’s request that his government act as a “guarantor” in peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s largest remaining rebel group.

The question, analysts say, is whether the warming relationship is a way for Petro to steer Maduro toward democracy, or simply lend credibility to the dictator, who is indicted in the United States on drug terrorism charges and accused by an international court of crimes against humanity. .

“The problem is if all we see is a photo that legitimizes Maduro without putting his victims first,” said Tamara Taraciuk Bronner, deputy US director at Human Rights Watch. “Is Petro preparing to use this as an opportunity to use the leverage he has to get concrete concessions?” Or is this a pat on the back for a dictator who has no interest in going anywhere?”

Petro’s government drew criticism in August when Colombia’s new ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, appeared cozy alongside Maduro during their first meeting in Caracas. Petro has been accused of rejecting Maduro’s violent use of human rights abuses.

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Taraciuk was concerned that Colombia was conspicuously absent from the group of countries in the region leading the charge to renew the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, an investigative body that has issued reports critical of Maduro’s government. But he and others were glad to see Petr publicly calling for Venezuela to rejoin the Inter-American Human Rights System, an observer body for the Organization of American States.

Last week, Human Rights Watch urged Petro to prioritize “concrete human rights commitments by Venezuelan authorities” and address violence, abuse and human trafficking.

US relations with Venezuela are also changing. The Trump administration refused to recognize Maduro after he claimed re-election in a 2018 vote that was widely considered a fraud. the countries severed diplomatic relations the following year.

Now, Biden administration officials have discussed lifting some oil sanctions against Venezuela after Maduro made a rare visit to the presidential palace in March to discuss energy sanctions and secure the release of two detained Americans.

In September, as Venezuelan migration to the U.S. surged, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced nearly $376 million in new humanitarian aid “to respond to the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans in Venezuela and other countries abroad.”

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Meanwhile, Venezuela’s opposition leaders are debating whether to leave Guaidó, the country’s last democratically elected head of the National Assembly, who is recognized by Washington as the country’s legitimate leader.

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While Guaido’s interim government retains control of some Venezuelan assets held abroad, it is increasingly irrelevant at home and is supported by a dwindling number of countries abroad. Venezuela’s main opposition parties have decided against extending Guaido’s parliamentary mandate when it expires in January, two people with direct knowledge of the decision said.

Guaido Tuesday opposed Petro’s visit.

“President Petro decides to visit dictator Maduro today and call him ‘president’, an act that could dangerously normalize human rights abuses,” he tweeted.

A person close to the interim government told The Washington Post that the plan is for the National Assembly to maintain its status as a democratically elected institution while the future of the interim government is unknown. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.

Opposition leaders hope to unite behind a single candidate chosen through primary elections to contest Venezuela’s presidential election in 2024. Maduro has hinted that he may be ready to hold elections as early as 2023.

According to the source, the issue of Guaido’s future should be resolved by the end of this year.


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