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The New York Democrat’s ties to Maduro could help Biden unlock a dead end

MIAMI (AP) – This was after a failed coup against Hugo Chavez and the Republic. Gregory Meeks was lounging at the Kennedy Complex in Cape Cod with a young Venezuelan MP with a thick mustache named Nicolas Maduro.

Photos from the 2002 meeting show men standing side by side with their shared love of baseball and talk of their upbringing – Maduro on the streets of Caracas, where left-wing radicals like him were shot, and Meeks in a public housing project. in Harlem, the son of a struggling boxer and teacher.

The exchange would be little more than an anecdote, but about Maduro̵

7;s rise to the Venezuelan presidency in 2013 and Meeks’ incredible rise through Washington’s relentless policies to become the first black chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee this month. of the Chamber of Parliaments.

Now, two decades later, the New York Democrat says he is ready – if asked – to confront Maduro, whom he remembers from that era as a good listener and committed to social justice.

“There will be no softball or memories of the good old days,” Meeks said in an interview with the Associated Press this week. “We will have real tough talks about what has happened and what needs to happen to undo some of the authoritarian things that have happened since he became president.”

To talk to Maduro or not: This is a troubling question for the upcoming Biden administration, as it overestimates US policy, which has brought hard exiles to Miami but done little to split Maduro’s power or alleviate the suffering of regular Venezuelans. .

Biden aides say the president-elect has limited opportunities to pressure Maduro and there are no plans to lift crippling oil sanctions or Maduro’s drug trafficking charges.

But analysts expect Biden to gain almost daily vitriol targeting Maduro and threats of a “military option” that characterizes Trump’s foreign policy, where Venezuela has occupied a privileged space. Instead, he promised to emphasize a multilateral approach in order to hold free and fair elections as soon as possible.

Enter Meeks, who attended Chavez’s funeral in 2013 on behalf of the Obama administration and whose long commitment to Latin America makes him ideally placed to open a place for diplomacy. Although he does not speak Spanish, his reputation as a straight shooter has earned him respect throughout the region’s ideological rift.

Among those with whom he has formed an incredible alliance is former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative who works to improve Afro-Colombians as part of free trade talks more than a decade ago, which Meeks backed in defiance of his party. . The relationship with Uribe – lionized by Venezuela’s opposition and demonized by left-wing America – could be useful, as he seeks to build momentum for a politically fulfilled engagement with Maduro.

“Maduro doesn’t believe in his own shadow.” But he can trust Gregory Meeks, “said former spokesman Bill Delahant, who traveled with Meeks to Chavez’s funeral and then twice more to Caracas on an unprecedented mission to improve bilateral relations. “If anyone can move things forward, it will be Meeks. I have no doubt that he will be an invaluable asset to the Biden administration. “

Meeks said he was not behaving like a peacemaker. But he said he was ready to talk to Maduro’s government if allies in Latin America, the European Union and the Biden administration saw value in such an approach.

He said his first trip as president since succeeding his New York counterpart, Elliott Engel, would be in Haiti and Colombia, including a visit to the border with Venezuela, where thousands of migrants cross every day in search of food and medical care.

“I want people to know that Latin America will not be a follow-up thought,” Meeks said.

Even more controversial is that he is “open to involving Maduro for Cuba and Russia in any negotiations that arise – provided that the US allies agree.

“It’s an opportunity,” he said, adding that identifying the Trump administration this week as Cuba’s state sponsor of terrorism would complicate any scope. “This is how you solve an important issue. You get buy-ins from a number of different people so as to give the people of Venezuela confidence in the election process. “

A recent State Department cable defending the tough policies of the Trump administration warns that Russia is working closely with Maduro’s military and financial officials to undermine hemisphere security. The cable, a copy of which was provided to the AP by a congressional official on condition of anonymity for sharing diplomatic communications, argues for more aggressive support for pro-democracy efforts in Venezuela in addition to US sanctions.

“Russia is using its relations with the regime to oppose the United States symbolically and very publicly,” according to the Sept. 9 cable, which has been described as “sensitive but unclassified.” It was sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by James Story, an ambassador to the Venezuelan Affairs Unit in Colombia.

“If Venezuela is left to heat up, Venezuela will be a very troubling side of US foreign policy in the region and will be very dear to US national interests,” the cable concluded.

A spokesman for Biden’s transition team declined to comment.

Meeks’ nearly 20-year relationship with Maduro began when they both founded what is known as the Boston Group. An informal network of American and Venezuelan lawmakers across the political spectrum – Democrats, Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists – gathered in Washington and Cape Cod to restore bilateral relations after the brief coup against Chavez, which the United States quickly recognized.

The group largely disintegrated, with Meeks being the only American member still in Congress. But the relationship built two decades ago has proved resilient. For example, a Republican official involved in the same four-day Cape Code legislative exchange with Meeks and Maduro led the back-channel effort that secured the release in 2018 of Joshua Holt, a Utah man detained for two years in Caracas prison for what were widely regarded as fabricated arms charges.

Most recently, former MP Pedro Diaz-Bloom, coordinator of the Boston Group in Venezuela, gathered dozens of promaduros and opposition economists to prepare a joint study on how to reactivate the country’s devastated oil industry. They also discussed ways to channel humanitarian aid to the country through multilateral agencies.

After the US presidential election, Diaz-Bloom traveled to Washington and saw Meeks. Before the trip, which he said he organized himself, he also met with Maduro, who reaffirmed his readiness for dialogue with the United States.

“I was a member of the Boston Group as a legislator and I went to the United States several times,” Maduro said Tuesday in an address to the Venezuelan congress, which is controlled by the ruling Socialist Party after elections boycotted by the opposition as unfair. “I respect and admire the United States, its people and its culture.”

After several failed attempts at negotiations mediated by the Vatican and Norway, dialogue has become a buzzword for weakness and reassurance among many in the opposition. It is not in vain that the Trump administration has said that the only thing to negotiate with Maduro is the conditions for his departure.

Meeks said he rejected that logic. Recently, even a close ally of Trump, Richard Grenell, the former acting director of U.S. national intelligence, met in Mexico with Jorge Rodriguez, Maduro’s top aide who is now president of the pro-government National Assembly, which the United States does not recognize.

“Trump’s policy is based on Florida’s policy – nothing is being done,” Meeks said.

Still, he said, he had no illusions about Maduro. After Chavez’s funeral, Meeks said he had quietly returned to Caracas twice in a previously unreported effort to pave the way for an exchange of ambassadors, which has not happened since 2010. On one of those trips, he called on Maduro to release the opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez, then in prison for leading anti-government protests.

The reconciliation effort failed, and Meeks said he was disappointed with the experience. Any future overture will require pre-determined conditions, he said.

“You can’t just take his word for it,” Meeks told Maduro. “He proved to me that he either didn’t want to continue or something in his policy prevented him from doing so.”


Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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