MIAMI — Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government is intensifying efforts to court the Biden administration as the new U.S. president weighs whether to risk a political backlash in Florida and ease up on sanctions seeking to isolate the socialist leader.
In the past two weeks, Maduro conceded to longstanding U.S. demands that the World Food Program be allowed to establish a foothold in the country at a time of growing hunger. His allies also vowed to work with the U.S.-backed opposition to vaccinate Venezuelans against the coronavirus and have met with diplomats from Norway trying to revive negotiations to end the country's never-ceasing political strife.
The frenzy of activity comes as senior U.S. officials are reviewing policy toward Venezuela. An interagency meeting, which was originally scheduled to take place Monday and include Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman but was postponed at the last minute, will focus on whether the U.S. should take steps to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, said two people who insisted on anonymity to discuss classified diplomatic matters.
"All these recent movement points to Maduro trying to get Washington's attention," said Geoffrey Ramsey, a Venezuela watcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The question is whether the White House is ready to commit to a full-fledged negotiations strategy, or whether it will continue to play it safe and keep the policy on the back burner."
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Jorge Rodriguez, the head of the pro-Maduro congress and a key promoter of dialogue, wouldn't comment when asked about the recent moves by Maduro.
Ramsey said even more goodwill gestures could be on the horizon.
Tuesday is the deadline for a committee in the Maduro-controlled congress to present a list of candidates for the National Electoral Council. Behind the scenes, moderates aligned with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have been meeting with Maduro representatives to push for the inclusion of two opposition rectors on the five-member board. If the demand is met, it could pave the way for Maduro's opponents to participate in mayoral and gubernatorial elections later this year.
Also in the mix is future of several American citizens jailed in Venezuela. In recent months, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has pressed Maduro and senior aides to release six former executives at Houston-based CITGO who U.S. officials believe are unjustly imprisoned as well as two former Green Berets who participated in a failed raid last year staged from neighboring Colombia and a former U.S. Marine being held on unrelated allegations.
So far, the posturing by Maduro has failed to impress U.S. officials.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described Maduro as a "brutal dictator" and vowed to continue recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaid as Venezuela's rightful leader — a position shared by more than 50 nations.
Other than promising to work more with U.S. allies and support the delivery of more humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the Biden administration has done little to unwind Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign to unseat Maduro.
The politics of engaging with Maduro are treacherous. Past attempts at dialogue have failed to produce a breakthrough and ended up strengthening Maduro, whose grip on power relies on support from the military as well as allies Iran, China and Russia — all of whom have seen their influence expand since Guaid, with U.S. support, tried to ignite protests by declaring himself president in 2019 after Maduro was re-elected in a vote boycotted by the opposition when several of its leaders were barred from running.
That hasn't stopped others from trying to bring the two sides together, however. This week, the Vatican's secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is traveling to Venezuela in what many observers see as an effort by the Holy See to test the waters for another attempt at negotiations like the ones it mediated with former Spanish President Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero in 2016.
While the trip's stated purpose is to attend the April 30 beatification of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, known as the "doctor of the poor" for his caring of the sick in the 1800s, Parolin is the Vatican's former ambassador to Venezuela and his highly unusual trip suggests more than just saint-making is on the agenda.