Thursday, June 23, 2016

Top US diplomat meets with Venezuela's president amid crisis

Top US diplomat meets with Venezuela's president amid crisis
June 22, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat met with Venezuela's
socialist president Wednesday, apparently hoping to prevent a
humanitarian disaster and ease a political crisis in this deeply
polarized nation.

Although he is one of the world's most vociferous critics of the United
States, President Nicolas Maduro was all smiles as he posed for photos
at the presidential palace with Thomas Shannon, the U.S. undersecretary
of state for political affairs.

Maduro gave a less than conciliatory televised address in which he
accused U.S. President Barack Obama of trying to interfere in
Venezuela's internal affairs.

"I gave Shannon a message to take back to President Obama. We hope that
Obama can rectify the posture he's taken during eight years of opposing
Venezuela's revolution. Hopefully in these last seven months of his
presidency, we can start down the path toward dialogue, with respect for
a positive agenda between the two countries. I really hope we can,"
Maduro said.

Venezuela is beset by an economic slump that has led to food riots and
aggravated political unrest, and U.S. officials have said they want to
avoid bloodshed and a humanitarian crisis that might spill across the
country's borders, undermining Obama's legacy in a region where he made
history by reopening relations with Cuba.

The United States has criticized Maduro's government for jailing critics
and blocking the opposition-controlled congress as part of attempts to
squelch unrest caused by growing shortages of food and many other key
goods as well as triple-digit inflation.

The U.S. also is backing a scheduled Thursday session of the
Organization of American States where regional governments will debate a
proposed diplomatic intervention aimed at easing tensions in Venezuela —
a measure opposed by Maduro.

The opposition is pushing for a recall referendum this year to cut short
Maduro's term and trigger new elections. They say the national electoral
council and courts are stacked in the government's favor and are trying
to delay or kill the recall move.

Obama's administration may be trying to take advantage of the post
Cuba-normalization era in which Latin American leaders are more
receptive to outreach from Washington. Shannon headed a similar mission
last year, with little result. They two countries have not exchanged
ambassadors since 2010.

Shannon commands more respect in Caracas than any other U.S. diplomat, ,
though that may not be saying much, said Michael Shifter, president of
the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

"There is a chance that his conversations will yield some modest
progress on democracy and human rights questions, but given the
bitterness and rancor between the government and opposition, it is wise
to keep expectations in check," Shifter said.

"The US is pursuing a two-track approach toward Venezuela, working
through multilateral channels such as the OAS but also moving on its own
and engaging bilaterally to help avert the most dire scenario," he added.

Members of the opposition also met with Shannon, but they rejected
dialogue with Maduro's government, calling it a time-wasting farce.

Even as Shannon pushed for the release of opposition leader Leopoldo
Lopez, considered by human rights groups South America's highest-profile
political prisoner, Venezuelan prosecutors indicted two opposition
activists on money laundering charges. The pair had been traveling to
assist in the signature validation process for the recall petition.

One of them, Francisco Marquez, is a dual Venezuelan-U.S. citizen.

In a rare congressional hearing on Venezuela's crisis Wednesday, U.S.
lawmakers condemned the arrest of Marquez and called on Maduro to
release him and a dozen others widely considered political prisoners. At
the hearing, officials defended the White House's decision to impose
sanctions on top Venezuela officials last year, a move that Maduro made
hay of for months.


Associated Press writer Luis Alonso Lugo in Washington contributed to
this report.


Hannah Dreier is on Twitter at . Her
work can be found at .

Source: Top US diplomat meets with Venezuela's president amid crisis -

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