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US Seeks Support from Venezuela Neighbors to Influence Maduro

(Bloomberg) -- The US is urging Venezuela’s neighbors to build bridges between President Nicolas Maduro and his opposition after candidate Maria Corina Machado was banned from running in this year’s elections, putting at risk a deal to remove sanctions on the Latin American country in exchange for a free and fair vote.

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The message was delivered by two top US officials for the region during a meeting of about 20 diplomats on Wednesday at the official residence of Colombian Ambassador Luis Gilberto Murillo in Washington, according to people familiar with the conversation.

The US officials — Brian Nichols from the State Department and Juan Gonzalez, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere — said their goal is not to reimpose sanctions. Instead, they want to foster conditions for a fair and competitive election that includes Maduro and the opposition, the people said, asking not to be named because they’re not authorized to speak publicly.

Key to that strategy is the involvement of Colombia’s Gustavo Petro, who has emerged as an important ally to Maduro since taking office in 2022, reopening his country’s borders with Venezuela. Gonzalez and US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer are traveling to Colombia on Feb. 5 to meet counterparts and Petro himself, who they would like to mediate the conflict between Maduro and Machado.

A meeting between Machado and Petro could be part of a successful strategy to end the standoff. While Machado is barred from leaving Venezuela, they could hold virtual meetings or, in a better scenario, Petro could use his influence on Maduro to allow her to travel, two of the people said.

While Machado has faced increasing pressure to name a substitute candidate that could run with her backing, she has so far rejected the idea.

A spokesperson for the Colombian embassy confirmed that Murillo hosted the meeting under the auspices of the Group of Latin America and Caribbean countries, a forum that gathers periodically and whose hosting rotates among the embassies in Washington.

An NSC spokesperson confirmed that Gonzalez and Nichols participated in the meeting “to provide the US perspective and to reaffirm the US commitment to supporting the Barbados Agreement,” the deal reached in October to allow for free and fair elections, without providing more details of their comments.

Petro is a bit of an unconventional choice of mediator for the US given his criticism of the global superpower. He has described Washington’s War on Drugs as a failure, saying it has only brought violence to Latin America without curbing addiction and overdoses in the US. Yet if the US were to approach anyone, it’s more logical to go with Petro than the other obvious choice, Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“If the US wants a government in South America to play this mediating role, it’s more likely they would be able to persuade Colombia’s government to do that than Brazil’s,” Freeman said. “I don’t think that same unilateral persuasion is there with Brazil.”

Moreover, Colombia has more reasons to worry about Venezuela’s stability as it has become a top destination for its neighbor’s migrants — hosting more than 2.5 million of them since 2015. Lula, on the other hand, could find it difficult to win the opposition’s trust after hosting Maduro in Brasilia last year and defending Venezuela’s version of democracy.

A Brazilian official said the nation remains committed to supporting the implementation of the Barbados Agreement — a deal reached last year between the US, Maduro and the Venezuelan opposition. Brazil is continuing the process of normalizing relations with Venezuela, which were cut off under Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, and working to reincorporate Venezuela into regional forums, the official said.

Machado was banned from participating in this year’s elections by Venezuela’s top court, which is controlled by Maduro. The US quickly reinstated sanctions on the nation’s gold sector after the court’s decision, saying it will allow a six-month suspension on oil and gas sanctions to expire in April if Machado and other opposition candidates remain barred from running.

Read More: US Set to Renew Venezuela Oil Sanctions After Candidate Ban

While several regional leaders expressed their concern after Venezuela’s top court ratified its ban on Machado, Petro has not spoken out about the matter.

In June, he tweeted that no authority “should take away political rights from any citizen,” in reference to Machado. Petro, who was once banned from holding public office in Colombia, had his political rights reinstated in 2017.

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