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

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CARACAS, Venezuela – The United States has long relied on Colombia as its closest Latin American ally against Venezuela’s socialist government. Former Colombian President Ivan Duque was a key partner in the US effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office. In a fiery speech in 2019, he sang that Maduro’s “dictatorship” had “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 significant step yet toward fulfilling a campaign promise to restore 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 towards Venezuela.

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

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

“Even before that, the era of pressure on Maduro to democratize has kind of subsided,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow on Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. Seeing that the strategy has failed to unseat Maduro – and seeks to disrupt his relationship with Moscow and perhaps reopen another source of oil – leaders are now choosing to engage with him.

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

The question, analysts say, is whether warming relations will be a means for Petro to steer Maduro toward democracy or simply lend prestige to a dictator who has been indicted in the United States on narco-terrorism charges and indicted by an international court for crimes against humanity.

“The problem is if we only want to see a photo that will provide legitimacy to Maduro without putting his victims first,” said Tamara Tarachuk Bronner, deputy Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Will Petro use this as an opportunity to take advantage of the leverage he has to get specific 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 next to Maduro in photographs during their first meeting in Caracas. Petro is accused of forcefully refusing to reveal human rights abuses by Maduro.

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Tarachuk was concerned that Colombia was notably absent from the group of countries in the region leading the charge to renew the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission in Venezuela, an investigative body that has published reports critical of Maduro’s government. But she and others were pleased to see Petro publicly call for Venezuela to rejoin the Inter-American System of Human Rights, an observer organization of the Organization of American States.

Last week, Human Rights Watch called on Petro to prioritize “concrete human rights commitments by the 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 believed to be fraudulent; the countries severed diplomatic relations the following year.

Now, Biden administration officials have discussed lifting some oil sanctions against Venezuela after a rare visit to Maduro’s 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 meet the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans” in Venezuela and other countries abroad.

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Meanwhile, opposition leaders in Venezuela are discussing a move away from Guaido, head of the country’s last democratically elected National Assembly, who has been recognized by Washington as the country’s legitimate leader.

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While the Guaido-led interim government maintains control over some Venezuelan assets held abroad, it has become increasingly irrelevant at home and is supported by a shrinking number of countries abroad. Venezuela’s main opposition parties have decided not to take part in renewing Guaido’s parliamentary term when it expires in January, according to two people with direct knowledge of the decisions.

Guaido objected to Petro’s visit on Tuesday.

“President Petro decided to visit dictator Maduro today and call him ‘president’, an action 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 retain 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 rally behind a single primary candidate to run in Venezuela’s presidential election in 2024. Maduro has hinted he may be inclined to hold the election as early as 2023.

The question of Guaido’s future, the source said, should be decided by the end of this year.



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