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U.S. outreach to Venezuela strengthens Maduro, sidelines Guaidó

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro speaks during a news conference in Caracas on Aug. 16. (Manaure Quintero/Bloomberg News)
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CARACAS, Venezuela — As Biden administration officials met with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in his palace over the weekend, the highest-level U.S. contact with the socialist state in years, they left one notable leader out of the plans.

Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader whom the United States recognizes as this South American nation’s rightful president, wasn’t informed of the Americans’ visit until after they had met with Maduro, according to four people familiar with the events. And while U.S. officials were in touch with Guaidó during their trip, they didn’t meet face to face, according to the four, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.

The rare U.S. visit Saturday with Maduro, who has been indicted by U.S. prosecutors on narcoterrorism charges, was a stunning shift in policy toward Venezuela, underscoring the global shake-up prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States is trying to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key Maduro ally, and secure alternatives to Russian oil.

It appeared to deliver results for the United States when Maduro released two Americans detained by the government.

But it also strengthened Maduro at a time when Guaidó and his allies, still recognized by the United States as Venezuela’s interim government, struggle to remain relevant. The trip signals the U.S. administration’s willingness to deal directly with Maduro, giving him legitimacy that Maduro and his allies are already touting as a win.

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“The loser in all of these actions by the United States is the opposition, but especially the interim government,” said an opposition figure who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.

Neither the State Department nor Guaidó would confirm or deny whether the U.S. officials met with Guaidó during the trip. The State Department has said it will continue to support Guaidó as interim president. It has repeatedly called on Maduro to return to negotiations with the opposition — talks that have been frozen for five months but could be revived in the new U.S. outreach.

A senior Biden administration official said the delegation informed opposition leaders of its visit but kept the details “very restricted” given the sensitivity of the effort to secure the release of detained Americans. The official said the trip was in the works for months, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine “changed the international environment significantly, and we just saw a window to travel.”

“The international community and even representatives of the opposition have urged us to convey directly to the regime the importance of returning to the negotiating table for dialogue, and that’s what we did,” the official said. “There is no dialogue between us and the regime.”

The U.S. delegation met with Gerardo Blyde, the lead opposition negotiator in the talks with the Maduro government, according to the four people. Blyde later briefed opposition leaders. He declined to comment.

Guaidó’s interim government also declined to comment. In a statement Wednesday, it reiterated its willingness to return to negotiations. It thanked the U.S. government for its support of the interim government, and insisted that any sanctions relief must be conditioned on real progress toward democracy.

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Maduro described the meeting with U.S. officials as “respectful” and “very diplomatic,” and said the two countries “agreed to work on an agenda moving forward.” Speaking on Venezuelan state television Monday, he said his government had “decided to reactivate the national dialogue process.” Some interpreted that as a commitment to return to negotiations. Others, including top Maduro ally Diosdado Cabello, a key member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, said the president needs certain conditions met.

Cabello celebrated the meeting as conveying at least a kind of recognition of Maduro. “All Venezuelans and the world should applaud,” he said Wednesday. “Things are falling into place.”

The U.S. delegation included Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs; Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs; and Jimmy Story, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela.

The sides discussed the possibility of easing sanctions on oil exports from Venezuela. The U.S. officials also worked to secure the release of detained Americans. On Tuesday, the Venezuelan government released Gustavo Cárdenas, one of six executives of Citgo Petroleum who were arrested in November 2017, and Jorge Alberto Fernández, a tourist who was accused of terrorism for flying a drone early last year.

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“We have a set of interests with Venezuela that include, of course, supporting the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday. “They include securing the release of Americans unjustly detained there. It is also true that we have an interest globally in maintaining a steady supply of energy, including through our diplomatic efforts.”

The United States and Venezuela broke off diplomatic relations in 2019, after Maduro claimed victory in an election widely seen as fraudulent and the Trump administration recognized Guaidó, then the National Assembly president, as the country’s rightful leader.

But Guaidó has little practical authority in the country and little influence outside. The number of countries who recognize him as interim president has shrunk; he acknowledged to The Washington Post in November that if the United States were to withdraw its support, “it would be difficult for us to face a dictatorship of these characteristics.”

Maduro’s party claimed sweeping wins in last year’s regional elections, the first to include the country’s top opposition parties in years. The country’s fractured pro-democracy movement struggled to compete against a government with more resources and tight control of the electoral system.

“It’s been very clear for the past two years that Maduro has control of the territory,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who focuses on Venezuela. “It’s recognition, it’s something that can give Maduro a sort of a victory lap, but it doesn’t mean a very big change at this point.”

Smilde said the trip was long overdue and provided an opportunity to “shake up the tragic equilibrium.” If it leads to a return to negotiations, he said, it could empower the opposition. But if U.S. officials continue to talk directly with Maduro, the opposition could be further weakened.

The trip has drawn intense criticism from Biden allies in Congress. The administration also risked antagonizing other crucial partners in Latin America, particularly Colombia, whose president had a previously scheduled meeting with Biden on Thursday.

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A former State Department official described the visit as poorly managed. Guaidó, the Colombian government and other key international partners, he said, “were blindsided or, at best, partially informed at the last moment.”

“The perception as to who came out ahead in this exchange is demonstrated by the fact that the [administration] said nothing about it at all until pressed, while Maduro dedicated a national … broadcast boasting of the meeting,” the official said. “When you produce an outcome where the good guys criticize and the bad guys celebrate, you probably have a bad outcome.”

Venezuela’s two most important neighbors are led by Maduro adversaries: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Iván Duque in Colombia. But elections in both countries this year are expected to continue the leftward swing seen in recent votes in Chile and Peru and bring governments friendlier to his socialist government.

“It’s obviously not lost on Maduro that if he can come out of this year strengthened, that positions him pretty well going into 2024,” when Venezuela is expected to hold its next presidential election, said former State Department official Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington.

The U.S. visit appears to have done little so far to drive a wedge between Maduro and the Kremlin. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodríguez in Turkey. Rodriguez said that she was “very happy” to see the Russian minister, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

“The United States and their allies are trying to play other countries against each other,” Lavrov reportedly said. “And it will not be a success.”

Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.