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 Iván Duque was a key partner in the US effort to oust Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro from office. In an impassioned speech in 2019, he said 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 trip to the Venezuelan capital is the most important step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to repair ties between the neighbors. He reopened shared borders and sent an ambassador to Caracas. Now, his visit cements a new era in regional diplomacy towards Venezuela.

This comes just two days after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential election, which brought the left back to power in all major Latin American countries, including several that were 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 plans to restart a “binational cooperation agenda.”

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

“Even before this, the era of Maduro’s pressure to democratize was kind of waning,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow specializing in Venezuela at the Washington Office on Latin America. Seeing that the strategy failed to oust Maduro – and looking to disrupt his relationship with Moscow, and perhaps reopen another source of oil – now the leaders are choosing to engage with him.

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

The question, analysts say, is whether the warming relationship will be a means for Petro to guide Maduro to democracy, or simply give prestige to a dictator who is under indictment in the United States on charges of narco-terrorism and accused by an international court of crimes against humanity. .

Tamara Taraciuk Broner, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Americas, said: “The problem is whether we will only see a picture that will give legitimacy to Maduro without putting his victims first. “Will Petro use this as an opportunity to use his advantage to get concrete concessions? Or is it a pat on the back of a dictator who has no interest in going anywhere?”

Petro’s government drew criticism in August when the new Colombian ambassador to Venezuela, Armando Benedetti, appeared cozy next to Maduro in photos during their first meeting in Caracas. Petro was accused of refusing to call out forcefully about human rights abuses by Maduro.

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Taraciuk was concerned that Colombia was absent from the group of countries in the region that led the charge to renew the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, an investigative body that has published reports critical of the Maduro government. But he and others were pleased to see Petro publicly calling for Venezuela to join the Inter-American System of Human Rights, a watchdog 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.

The relationship between the United States and Venezuela is also changing. The Trump administration refused to recognize Maduro after he claimed reelection in a 2018 vote widely considered fraudulent; the countries cut diplomatic ties the following year.

Now, Biden administration officials have discussed lifting some oil sanctions on Venezuela after a rare trip 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 US surged, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced nearly $376 million in new humanitarian assistance “to respond to the needs of vulnerable Venezuelans” in Venezuela and other countries abroad.

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Meanwhile, opposition leaders in Venezuela are arguing to oust Guaidó, the head of the country’s last democratically elected national assembly, who Washington recognizes as the country’s legitimate leader.

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While the interim government led by Guaidó maintains control over some Venezuelan assets held overseas, it is increasingly irrelevant at home and supported by a dwindling number of countries abroad. Venezuela’s main opposition parties have decided not to participate in the renewal of Guaidó’s parliamentary term when it expires in January, according to two people with direct knowledge of the decision.

Guaidó opposed 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 violations,” 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 a primary, to compete in Venezuela’s presidential election in 2024. Maduro has said he may be willing to hold elections as early as 2023.

The source said that the question of Guaidó’s future must be resolved by the end of this year.


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